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Wisconsin’s Incredible Shrinking Protest



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Madison — Between February 14 and June 14 of this year, stocking caps and scarves have given way to sundresses and cargo shorts, but protesters still languidly stroll around the Wisconsin state capitol in Madison. They have come by the thousands on this warm June day to demonstrate against Scott Walker’s plan to curb public-sector-union power, although the crowds are only a small fraction of what the state experienced months ago. The college students have gone home, and public school teachers clearly are much more inclined to protest on days when school is actually in session.

Outside the capitol, there are still drums going and the chants are all the same, albeit with fewer participants and less enthusiasm. In February, the protesters were working to stop Walker’s plan — in June, they appear to be simply expressing their disgust at the inevitable. After Walker’s plan was struck down by a Madison-based judge on the basis of a perceived open meetings violation, the Assembly announced it was going to re-pass the measure today as a budget amendment. This brought another round of street theater down to the Wisconsin capitol.

Down the sidewalk from the west wing, random speakers take turns holding court at a rigged-up PA system. A rotund woman with a large knee brace, clutching an American Federation of Teachers sign, starts a semi-lucid, profane speech in which she urges the crowd to “do your f—ing homework” at campaign time. For some people, P.J. O’Rourke once noted, free speech is a curse. Her screed is made even more bizarre by a small machine spitting out liquid soap bubbles. Circling the stage is a tall gentleman made even taller by the giant paper-mache Scott Walker head he has crafted.

Upon entering the capitol, visitors are greeted by a large sign explaining all the items they are forbidden to carry in. Someone unfamiliar with the February protests would be flummoxed as to why some of these items show up on the list, but the list itself tells the story of what happened when hundreds of protesters took up residence in the statehouse a few months ago. Among the verboten items: snakes, crockpots, massage chairs, mattresses, and balloons, plus a catch-all (“… other items that may be considered inconsistent with a plan to depart the building at the posted closing time or whose use is considered a threat to public health or safety”).

In the capitol rotunda, around 100 people are gathered, watching the beginning of the assembly session on large monitors that have been set up for their benefit. At the height of the protest, over 6,000 people were reported to be crammed into this space. Resident irritant and multiple-arrestee Jeremy Ryan, who has earned the sobriquet “Segway Guy,” slowly makes his way around the crowd perched atop his two-wheel mobility device.

Soon, three men wearing pink tunics appear. “We Are Walker’s Pink Slips!” they begin chanting loudly. “If you have to chant what your protest costume is, it’s probably not a good one,” cracks a nearby lobbyist.#more#

At noon, the crowd is joined by the “Solidarity Singers,” a group which congregates every day to sing at the top of their lungs in the rotunda. Last week, an American Red Cross blood drive had to leave the capitol because of the irritating cacophony produced by the singers. A woman weaves her way through the crowd, handing out song books so everyone can sing along. The books include many union favorites, tailored to the Wisconsin struggle. (For instance, “We Shall Overcome” now apparently references the effort to recall Scott Walker.)

There are some catchy new tunes, too, including one called “Scotty, We’re Comin’ For You:”

First they came for the unions,
Saying that you should have less
Business needs more, you people aren’t poor
Stop whining, buck up like the rest

And then they came for the children,
Hard to believe but it’s true
Schools and good health
Might take from their wealth
So tell me what are you gonna do?

Scotty, we’re coming for you!
The giant has only been sleeping
Now the sun shines on morning dew
From under the sheets, it came into the streets
So tell me, what is it gonna do?
Scotty, we’re coming for you!

As they sing, a young woman with a mohawk dances with another woman wearing a Batman mask. The pink-tunic trio has been joined by other pink-sheet-wearers and they are all dancing. Everyone there is likely puzzled as to how none of this has changed Scott Walker’s mind. (The pink tunic guy would later be caught harassing a cameraman from a conservative think tank. Language warning.)

Later, the assembly announced they wouldn’t be convening at all on the budget until Wednesday. Outside, a team of girls wearing tight-fitting shirts puts on a hula-hoop show, which draws an inordinate amount of interest from capitol law enforcement. (Thankfully, the crowd is safe from any hula-hoop related catastrophe.)

The crowd is a mere echo of the days when 100,000 people showed up in the cold and snow to march on the capitol. It has been distilled to the most ardent believers in the cause, and then further distilled to those believers in the cause that wouldn’t rather be golfing on a beautiful 80 degree Wisconsin day. Clearly, the thrill of the spectacle has worn thin.

Around 5:00 p.m., the Supreme Court issued an order upholding Walker’s collective-bargaining law. After the ruling, protesters formed a ring around the capitol, singing. The legislature would no longer need to re-vote on the provision that so many came to protest against.

Under normal circumstances, the state’s citizens would begin to move on. Yet as a result of the months-long conflict, nine state senators now face recall elections through the summer. So while Walker’s supporters claimed victory on this Tuesday, it may still just be the end of the beginning.

— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.



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