The Corner

The Changing Face of Wisconsin Protesting

Protests of one kind or another dot the streets of Madison virtually every weekend. Signs denounce everything from sweatshops to Darfur to the Iraq war. Mere months ago, a gay-rights rally featured Rep. Tammy Baldwin dancing onstage with Wonder Woman as men in drag serenaded the crowd. That is why, if anti-government demonstrations with nationwide ramifications were to happen, it makes sense they would happen here in Wisconsin.

Yet despite hundreds of thousands of union members and students showing up at the capitol to bang drums and wave signs, the current protests reflect a very different era in Wisconsin demonstrating. Hardly anybody has been arrested. Aside from a few notable exceptions, protesters have been law-abiding and peaceful. Loud and smelly, but peaceful.

This is a much different situation than, say, the Dow Chemical protests at the UW–Madison campus in 1967, when students were beaten and tear-gassed. The Madison community is still fractured by the 1970 bombing of Sterling Hall on the UW campus, in which one man was killed by anti-Vietnam protesters.

Certainly, in the Vietnam era, the stakes were much higher and the protests more passionate and aggressive. But even small teacher strikes had a completely different ethos 40 years ago than they do today.

Take the famous 1974 teachers’ strike in nearby Hortonville, in which 88 teachers went on strike and were immediately fired and replaced. The teachers continued to picket the school for months on end — but when Judge Urban Van Susteren (father of TV’s Greta) ordered limits on the protesting, both sides took their grievances to the streets.

Picketers routinely showed up at the homes of replacement teachers. One night, a replacement teacher reportedly stayed up until 2:30 in the morning to keep vandals away from his house. When he woke up, the word “SCAB” was painted on three sides of his house.

Teacher sympathizers were accused of going to corner stores and moving merchandise around: candy to the medicine aisle, medicine to the meat aisle, and so forth. They ordered pizzas, flowers, and Playboy subscriptions to school board members’ homes, for which the board members then had to pay. Protesters would drive their cars on to Main Street and park there all day, so no legitimate patrons could park anywhere near the local stores.

As time wore on, things got more serious.#more# Police took reports of cars with no license plates slamming on their brakes in front of school buses. The head of the state teachers’ union was accused of jumping on the hood of a school board member’s car and riding on the hood for a half mile. The president of the school board woke up one morning to find two spent shotgun shells on his front doorstep. Two hunting dogs were found hanging dead from their own leashes.

In the first two months of protests, 78 people were arrested in Hortonville, a town of 1,500 people. (Almost all the arrested were agitators from other cities, mostly Madison.) And yet with crowds in Madison occasionally topping 70,000 people these days, hardly anyone is being dragged to jail. (In fact, much of the incivility has been perpetrated by elected lawmakers themselves.)

It seems likely that technology is partly responsible. About half the hands in the crowd are holding video cameras, and few protesters are willing to be caught on film engaging in any type of physical violence. Furthermore, the fact that video can be sent worldwide with the push of a button may be neutering the crowds somewhat. The revolution may not be televised, but it certainly will be YouTubed.

In the past, if someone wanted to make their point known, they had to put on a spectacle noteworthy enough to garner coverage from the traditional media. In 2011, if someone wants to broadcast their cause to the world, they merely have to press “record.”

What’s clear is that Madison doesn’t need much of a nudge to quickly revert back to a ’60s-era hippie style. Many of the Vietnam-era radicals are still walking the streets. While they likely appreciate the handiwork of the 2011 protesters, they’re probably saddened that the old days are gone.

But one thing is for sure — if the current Wisconsin protests go on indefinitely, some of the balding radicals may see some of their past tactics called into service.

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


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