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Anatomy of a Protest: From a Simple March to a National Fight

By ChesapeakeCitizen - Posted on 01 March 2011

Anatomy of a Protest: From a Simple March to a National Fight

by Dan Simmons
Published on Monday, February 28, 2011 by The Capital Times (Wisconsin)

MADISON, WI - On Feb. 7, with Wisconsin united in the afterglow of a Green Bay Packers victory in the Super Bowl, brand-new Gov. Scott Walker convened a dinner meeting of his Cabinet at the Governor's Mansion.

Walker held up a photo of President Ronald Reagan, who had famously fired striking air-traffic controllers, and said his plan to sweep away decades of protections for state public employees in a stop-gap budget bill represented "our time to change the course of history."

"It was kind of the last hurrah before we dropped the bomb," he said.

The budget-repair bill, which would strip most collective-bargaining rights from 175,000 public-sector workers while imposing immediate benefits concessions, went public four days later. Walker, a Republican, called for passage in the GOP-controlled Legislature within a week.

Word of the bill's union provisions started to trickle out in press reports Thursday night, which for union chiefs and organizers began what one described as "a freakout of a long weekend."

At the offices of the Wisconsin Education Association Council on Madison's South Side, about 40 volunteers and staffers cradled phones and hunched over laptops.

Some spent their 14-hour days that weekend calling down the list of the union's 98,000 state workers, most of them teachers; others posted messages on Facebook about rallies that were being planned for the coming week or blogged about the bill's provisions.

Helped by more than 1,000 volunteers at 29 WEAC offices statewide, the union met its goal: every member got a call.

"I've never seen an operation reach that many people that quickly," said Dustin Beilke, a WEAC organizer.

Leaders of other unions large and small were similarly hard at work that weekend, building on relationships formed during meetings in the previous weeks between a broad section of public- and private-employee unions.

"I don't ever remember an issue melding both public and private sector unions, and this one has," said John Matthews, executive director of Madison Teachers Inc. and a veteran of four decades of union battles.

As unions organized protests to be launched in the coming days - the largest in Wisconsin's capital city since the Vietnam War - about 250 people in two separate groups picketed Sunday at the Capitol and in front of the Maple Bluff mansion Walker now calls home.

Before Walker unveiled his budget-repair bill on Feb. 11, the Teaching Assistants' Association at UW-Madison, along with campus student groups Student Labor Action Coalition and Multicultural Student Coalition, had planned a noon march from the Memorial Union to the Capitol to deliver "I Heart UW" valentines to Walker and urge him not to cut education funding. They were hoping to draw a couple hundred.

The budget bill changed everything.

More than 1,000 people joined the march and rally, screaming "Spread the love, Stop the hate, Don't let Walker legislate."

People in the typically quiet, business-like Capitol looked on nervously at the group as they jammed the corridor leading to Walker's office, pouring valentines on the desk of Walker's office guard, their chants echoing off the building's stately walls.

That night, TAA leaders went back to campus and sent their 2,800 UW-Madison members an e-mail urging them to return to the Capitol on Tuesday and testify at the Legislature's powerful Joint Finance Committee, which had scheduled a hearing on the bill at 10 a.m.

Unions across the state were doing the same, as a dozen leaders convened Monday.

State law prevents Capitol Police from locking the building while there are ongoing hearings. So some TAA members made plans to stay as long as necessary, not realizing they wouldn't sleep at home again for weeks and that their union would set up a nerve center in a Capitol office, with members coordinating volunteers and helping manage what became the Capitol's 24-hour ecosystem.

Tuesday was unseasonably warm in Madison, with temperatures above freezing for much of the day. It was one in a series of pleasant days that made gathering outside the Capitol easier than it otherwise might have been.

That morning, AFSCME, a 68,000-member union that represents state and municipal workers and was founded in Madison, started running buses from at least seven cities throughout Wisconsin.

About 10,000 people gathered at the Capitol for noon and 5 p.m. rallies, holding protest signs and chanting "Kill the Bill!" and "This is What Democracy Looks Like!"

Inside, 3,000 more turned the ground-floor rotunda into a raucous drum circle and plastered the walls with anti-Walker, pro-union posters. It was the start of a protest village that would occupy the Capitol at least through Sunday, Feb. 27, when Capitol Police say they'll no longer allow protesters to stay overnight.

The predominantly student crowd that had delivered valentines the day before was joined by a diverse group of teachers, police officers, firefighters, ironworkers and clerical staff, among others. Around the state, teachers protested in Appleton, Wausau, Green Bay, La Crosse, Fond du Lac and Eagle River.

Meanwhile, opponents signed up by the hundreds to speak against the bill before the Legislature's finance committee, creating a continuous stream of testimony and an hours-long waiting list that grew throughout the day.

A couple of miles from the Capitol, about 120 MTI leaders met at 4:15 p.m. at the Madison Labor Temple.

At the meeting, executive director John Matthews discussed the far-reaching consequences of the bill and the group decided Madison teachers should spend the next three days at the Capitol - and not in the classroom.

"We were in lockstep," said Matthews. "There was no dissension."

That night, the Madison School District canceled classes for Wednesday.

About the same time, finance committee co-chairs Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, directed staff to stop registering people wanting to testify, angering opponents.

"It demonstrated that these lawmakers were willing to push legislation through without adequate public input," said Scott Spector, a lobbyist for American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin, "and it showed the resolve of workers not to be silenced."

The committee adjourned about 3 a.m. Wednesday. At that point, Democrats continued hearing testimony in another room, giving justification to protesters to stay overnight in the Capitol.

The crowds swelled even more Wednesday as the Madison teachers union's 4,700 members, the district's 25,000 students and many of the students' parents were free to attend - and to decide to sleep inside the Capitol.

The protesters were now 20,000 strong but the politics remained unchanged, with Walker and Republican lawmakers insisting they were unswayed from their support. The bill seemed headed for a Thursday Senate vote and approval.

At 8 a.m. Thursday, the Senate's Democrats agreed to flee to Illinois, leaving the Senate one member shy of the 20 senators required to vote on budget-related bills.

It was the third pivotal decision - MTI's call for protest and the Democrats' continuation of testimony were the others - that blocked rapid passage of the budget-repair bill and accelerated an already historic set of events.

But there was a problem: Sen. Tim Cullen of Janesville didn't participate in the vote to leave Wisconsin. He was helping the family of former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Bill Bablitch notify the media of Bablitch's death.

When he heard the plans, Cullen called Senate President Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, to ask if he could enter the Capitol without being detained.

"He said fine, come in. There's no problem," Cullen told the State Journal.

Ellis, who runs the Senate, cautioned Cullen to leave by 11 a.m., when the Senate was scheduled to consider the bill and he would be forced to institute a "call of the house" to try to compel the 14 senators back to the chamber.

Cullen said he later got a call from Ellis as he drove south toward Illinois: "Did you get out of here?"

When assured that Cullen was out of Madison, he said Ellis responded, "Good. I just wanted to double check."

Ellis could not be reached for confirmation on Friday.

The senators' fleeing was quickly derided by Gov. Walker as a stunt but cheered wildly by protesters as an act of courage.

"I think it caused a lot of people to ramp it up, come back and stay longer," Beilke said.

Madison canceled classes for a second day Thursday, and it was joined by districts around the state. About 25,000 protesters had descended on the Capitol that day, and 40,000 - the most of the week to that point - showed up on Friday, a week after Walker publicly unveiled the budget-repair bill.

By Saturday, Feb. 19, the state's wild political ride had captured the nation's attention, with network news trucks parked on the Square and a pro-Walker counter-rally organized by a national political organization, Americans For Prosperity, which coordinated with activists from the local Tea Party and other conservative-leaning groups.

On any other day at the Capitol, their protest - variously estimated between 3,000 and 10,000 people - would be considered massive, but they were largely drowned out by the anti-Walker crowds, which were riding momentum built over the previous days of organizing and rallies. Police estimated that in total 68,000 people were there with the vast majority opposed to Walker's bill and with no major incidents for such a large crowd.

Organizers of protests against the bill said their turnout, while mind-boggling, could be explained by the steady growth in interest and numbers throughout the week, and Saturday allowed people to attend whose work schedule conflicted the rest of the week.

"It built every day leading up to Saturday," Spector said. "Then that was the crescendo."

Over the following week classes resumed, but the Capitol sleepover, the protests and the legislative stalemate continued. Unions discussed a general strike, while Walker, embarrassed by a prank call from a liberal blogger pretending to be a wealthy campaign donor, threatened layoffs if the bill fails.

Police said about 70,000 people showed up at the Capitol Square on Saturday, Feb. 26, the largest turnout yet. The 14 Senate Democrats remain out of state.

© 2011 The Capital Times


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