Friday, March 04, 2011

The beauty of rallies

My enthusiasm for the pro-labor protests at the Wisconsin Capitol has been tempered by my cyncism about protests. I grew up going to demonstrations, particularly a pro-life rally and march around the Capitol Square every January, to mark the Roe vs Wade decision. My parents were active in the pro-life movement, and I was an active pro-lifer till my college years (now I'm on the fence). We'd march silently around the Capitol Square, which seemed to have more than four sides, in all kinds of weather. My parents would take perverse pride in marching in bitter cold--"That's how dedicated we are," they'd say.

I've been to many demonstrations as an adult. A few have been at our city hall; I've done anti-war picketing at our two big malls here. I've gone to Take Back the Night marches, and joined in on some anti-war rallies in DC when I happened to be there for conferences. But too many of the demonstrations I've been in have been at the UW-Madison's Library Mall, or the state Capitol, or State Street, which connects the two spots. I say "too many" because I feel like marching from the UW to the Capitol is almost a cliche. That is the "go to" route for so many marches. I feel like the bystanders are either sympathetic to the cause, are jaded and cynical and dismiss us as "just another Madison protest," or enjoy the event as a spectacle--an anecdote they can share with their friends about what happens in Mad-town. I so often see the same fellow activists that I see at other rallies, talks, meetings, and lit drops. The last few years I've felt like demonstrations buoy up activists spirits for a bit, but that's about it. They don't change the public's, or lawmakers, minds.

That's why I've been putting my energy into phone-banking the last three weeks. It's not because I like phonebanking, that's for sure! It takes a lot of willpower for me to do it, so I don't do it enough. But I believe we have to reach out to people in these Senate districts held by Republicans. Those Senators minds will only be changed by their constituents.

That's not to say I haven't been to quite a few rallies and marches in the last few weeks, often, but not always, in the company of friends and colleagues. And usually I'm glad I've gone. Because what I've witnessed at these events is unique. I've realized this especially during the last week, as public access to the state Capitol has been restricted, and as the weekday rallies have shrunk. The rallies have been smaller, in large part, because public school teachers and students haven't been there in as large numbers during the day, and because there haven't been as many "teach-outs" at UW-Madison. On the positive side, there have been lots of rallies in other Wisconsin communities, large and small, as well as rallies nationwide. That is fantastic. And I should add that, after the first two weeks of rallies, my perspective on what's a "large" rally has changed. When you've attended rallies with 10,000 or more several times in a week, a thousand seems small!

State Street has been quieter during the week. You don't see so many people walking along in either directions with signs. That does change when there's a special event, like last night's New Orleans-style funeral march--when that event ended, people carrying signs, people in Mardi Gras costumes filled the sidewalks. Or the huge rally on Saturday. Two friends and I took a bus from the near west side to the Capitol. Midday on a Saturday. The bus was PACKED, mostly with protestors. I think the only other time I've seen a Madison bus that crowded was after the giant Rhythm and Booms fireworks show.

It is amazing to be in a huge crowd that is in good humor, all standing up for the same principles. On Saturday, there was a constant march going on around the Square. We filled the street--the sidewalk couldn't hold us. In fact, there was another, parallel march going around the Capitol building itself--because there were that many pro-labor protestors. As we walked around the Square, on one block, a group of Teamsters stood next to their big truck, chanting "Thank you, teachers!" as the marchers passed by. That's solidarity.

We had lunch at a downtown restaurant before walking to the Capitol. Another diner, a corrections officer, noticed my sign saying "Proud to serve the public as a state employee..." He said "hello, fellow state employee" and I responded in kind. That's solidarity.

Monday night a friend and I attended a (relatively small) rally outside one of the locked Capitol doors. This was after a day of very restricted access to the Capitol interior. After some planned speeches, there was an open mike. One woman gave her account of managing to get into the Capitol. Law enforcement officers asked her to leave. She asked them to show an order that said she had to leave. They didn't show her an order; they picked her up and took her to an elevator. She was capturing this all on video; the law enforcement officers (leo's) took her camera/phone and wiped the video. [And then I lost the thread of her story, but obviously she made it out of the Capitol.]

At this point, one of two off-duty cops who were attending the rally, and standing behind me and my friend, put her hand in the air and started yelling "Do you have the card? I can fix that!" As she made her way to the speaker, the other cop said "She's the computer forensics expert in our department." How cool is that--we had just the expertise we needed right there??!! And this woman was so excited to help!

In January I read Nobody turn me around: a people's history of the 1963 march on Washington, (I've almost finished it). It's so inspiring and thought-provoking on many levels. One thing that struck me as I read it, and really resonates with me now, is how the fact that, back in 1963, all those people coming together peacefully WAS really the statement. That the march happened, that it was so big, and that it was peaceful, made it successful. There was so much concern--no, fear--beforehand that a large group of blacks gathered in a public place would result in a riot. Most of the concern was on the part of white folks, but some black folks shared that concern too. Then there was concern about such a large mixed-race crowd. The march didn't block daily activities in Washington; the rhetoric may have been tamer than some wanted; the podium may have been dominated by moderates and "superstars," not regular folks. Some of the things that came from the podium have lived on, and will live on, but the event itself mattered more.

I think it's the same with the Wisconsin rallies. I hope it's the same. I'm so used to them being peaceful that I forget that's not a given. Emotions are high. People are scared and tired. But we work to keep the peace.

Having grown up going to silent marches, it's great to attend marches and rallies where we shout and sing. How often do we sing together in our society these days? I love the live music. I love people contributing their unique talents to these protests. Even the drumming energizes me. Now I hear they won't let musical instruments in the Capitol (I presume this is directed at the protestors, not at special events like inaugurations). It makes me sad. I do hope we SING a lot.

For years I've marveled at how open our Capitol is. Anyone who works or lives downtown has used it as a shortcut--a shortcut!! I know I have. During the outdoor Saturday farmers markets, it houses the nearest, and nicest public bathrooms. It's a stunning building inside, filled with all kinds of interesting details and beautiful craftsmanship, that you can start to take for granted. I love watching kids (and adults) visit it for the first time, and realize this grand place is theirs, too. I've found it even more beautiful when the Rotunda has filled with all kinds of people coming together, in peace and good humor. I hope to see that again in the coming week.

I'm turning to Madison's weekly newspaper Isthmus's web site, The Daily Page for a lot of the coverage, including a great live blog. They have an ongoing feature, "This Is What Creativity Looks Like." Among other things, they've featured three videos created by Matt Wisniewski. They're wonderful. Another film I really like is just called Wisconsin. I think it's beautiful.

Okay, a rant: When Scott Walker is asked whether he really considered planting agitators in the protests to stir up trouble, as he said in this phone call, Walker quickly says "but I rejected the idea!" In the phone call, he rejected the idea because he didn't think it would work to his advantage, not because it was unethical! We have to keep that in mind.

Bravo to Rachel Maddow for her great coverage of this situation. She's very good at putting it into a larger political context, about how it's part of a battle between Republicans and Democrats. But on the ground, it doesn't feel that way. It feels like people standing up for themselves, and their principles. People talk about how this bill will affect them, their families, their communities. We can put it into larger contexts of the influence of corporations in politics, but we're not fighting so we can keep electing Democrats. We like the Democrats because they stood up for us. If Republican Senator Dale Schultz stands up for us, votes against this bill, I'll support him (well, not actively, but I won't diss him).

There are some protestors from out of state. But they are in a very small minority. At last Saturday's rally, a couple of speakers said, basically, "Our critics say we're all out-of-staters. They couldn't be more wrong. We're proud Wisconsinites." One friend worried to me that this made it sound like we don't appreciate out-of-staters, at rallies or otherwise lending support. So, on her behalf, I say to non-Wisconsinites, "We love having you at our rallies! Keep the support coming!"