Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Reading Between the Lines

Brooke Sperry and her daughter Belanna send a message.

Democracy is messy!

“Democracy is messy….The answer to reforming our system is not to shut people out or diminish the ability of our people or institutions to participate in the process.”
-- Chuck Hagel, former US Senator (R-Nebraska)

Packer fever has given way to passion of a different sort in the Badger state – spectating the ongoing controversy over the governor’s budget adjustment bill being played out in and around the state capitol. Grassroots demonstrations are sprouting up in communities all across Wisconsin.

I happened to be in Madison on Thursday and Friday of last week attending a meeting of the Wisconsin Humanities Council. With the upcoming Library Legislative Day very much in mind, it was a good opportunity to scout the situation at the capitol and gather information to report back to WLA members who planned to make the trip and might be uncertain as to what to expect.

Unfortunately, Library Legislative Day was subsequently postponed to a date when library supporters might have a clearer picture of the budget picture (and better weather).

Protests against Governor Walker’s proposal to scale back union bargaining rights had been gathering momentum since the previous Friday. Between 15,000 and 40,000 people were gathered in and around the capitol during the two days I observed. That’s roughly half the seating capacity of Lambeau Field. The crowd on Saturday probably would have rivaled attendance in Green Bay on any given Sunday.

It is the biggest, loudest pep rally celebrating the First Amendment that you could possibly imagine.

Banners festoon all balcony railings and colorful homemade posters are carefully taped to the marble walls and pillars. Diversity doesn’t begin to describe the faces and voices standing shoulder to shoulder chanting, “This is what democracy looks like!” College students. Grandparents. Firemen and women in full turnout gear accompanied by bagpipes. Construction workers wearing hard hats. Teachers, nurses, DNR wardens, ironworkers, taxi drivers, long distance truckers and, yes, librarians. Moms and dads with children in strollers. Musicians and folksingers.

It was still possible last Friday to successfully maneuver to legislative office doors without any problems by using the staff stairways rather than the big marble ones and sticking to the outer corridor ring to avoid the rotunda where protestors were standing 15 to 20 bodies deep. Depending upon the size of the crowd and whether the senate or assembly is in session, members of the Capitol Police are now closing off certain corridors or sections for security reasons.

Despite the injudicious use by media and politicians of descriptors such as powder keg, riot, mob, and chaos in the streets, the capitol is a safe, albeit very noisy place these days. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has been arrested or taken to jail, although about a dozen people were ticketed for disorderly conduct.

On Saturday morning as I left Madison to drive north, Madison prepared for the biggest day yet. Eventually another 60,000 to 70,000 participants arrived – including for the first time a delegation of a couple thousand supporting Governor Walker.

At the end of the day, City of Madison Police issued a thank you to the demonstrators:

"On behalf of all the law enforcement agencies that helped keep the peace on the Capitol Square Saturday, a very sincere thank you to all of those who showed up to exercise their First Amendment rights. You conducted yourselves with great decorum and civility, and if the eyes of the nation were upon Wisconsin, then you have shown how democracy can flourish even amongst those who passionately disagree. As of 5:00 p.m., no major incidents had been reported. There have been no arrests. However, discourse and discussion was - at times - loud and heated. That was to be expected. As previously indicated, the goal of law enforcement has been to provide a safe environment for democracy to take place. That goal has been realized for yet another day."

In short, the huge crowds have behaved exactly as one might expect Wisconsinites to act. Exhausted, frustrated and determined to be sure, but as good decent citizens. They are pleasant and considerate. Kind.

Union members distributed foil wrapped bratwurst and bottles of water to those waiting to see a live broadcast of “The Ed Show” with Ed Schultz across the street from the capitol on Thursday and Friday evenings. Meanwhile, a small pizza place near the Capitol has been responding to phone calls from a dozen countries and thirty-eight states looking to donate free pizza to the protestors. Donors include citizens of China and Egypt.

After a week of continuous demonstrations, the stunning pile of marble that is Wisconsin’s seat of government – usually kept immaculate and well-polished by a conscientious overnight cleaning crew – has acquired a lived in look because it literally has been lived in 24/7. Outside temperatures at the end of last week were mild enough so as to allow the doors to be open for a greater exchange of air, but increased security and more seasonable weather has put an end to that. Friends who attended rallies on Sunday reported that the place had acquired the unmistakable aroma of a pair of dirty gym socks.

Democracy is messy….

That’s why volunteers from among the UW teaching assistants are signing up in shifts to clean the rest rooms and pick up the trash.

Speaking as a public employee who is also a taxpayer and a consumer, I am immensely proud of my state for not shutting its doors or diminishing the ability of our people and institutions to participate in the process.

This is what democracy looks like!

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