Much has been reported about the sensational goings-on at the State Capitol building in Madison, WI. It has become the dominant domestic news story for two straight weeks, and has sparked protests around the United States. However, the national news has really only touched on a fraction of the interesting elements of the continuing saga at Capitol Square.
I’m a lifelong Madison native, I work in the Madison School District, and have been immersed in the middle of the protests. In order to shed some light on the actual specifics of the protests, I figure I would share some tidbits and stories from the things I have seen both walking around the Square, and specifically things I have observed from my sleeping perch on the first floor between the North and East Galleries of the rotunda.
Something to know before you read further: in Madison, the Capitol has always stood as the emotional and physical heart of the city. It lies in the exact center of the city, and the city is designed around it. Most streets lead to the Capitol, and it is visible from almost anywhere in Madison. Most of Madison’s events take place on the Square, from the weekly Farmer’s Market to Taste of Madison to Art Fair on the Square to Paddle and Portage and beyond. Rarely is there a week that people don’t head downtown for some reason or another, and that reason usually inhabits the streets around the dome.
That is part of what has made this protest personally significant to Madison. While the Capitol has always been the heart of the city, over the past two weeks it has developed a pulse. The chants, the drumbeats, and the constant flow of people around it have breathed an extra amount of life into the always vibrant dome. The people who have been involved in the protest have fed off of the pulse of the Capitol, and it has helped spur the continued passion of the protestors.
One of the stories that have received quite a bit of attention has been the pizza. Ian’s Pizza is a local pizza by the slice place that has a location less than a block from the Capitol. When the protests expanded four or five days in, people from all around the United States and the world started calling into Ian’s, and buying pizzas to be delivered to the Capitol. Individuals walking around the Capitol distributing giant slices of pizza from enormous pizza boxes became a common sight. For about a two day stretch, Ian’s primarily focused on their most popular flavor, mac-and-cheese pizza. After that stretch, they thankfully expanded to offer most of their flavors. Ian’s eventually got so many donations that they stopped taking phone calls for anyone who didn’t want to supply the Capitol, and also allowed walk-ins to their store to get free slices if they were heading to or from the Capitol. Ian’s also put up a giant map board showing where the donations had come from and all fifty states were represented. Another hilarious moment was when they finally hit critical mass, and had too many pizzas to give away to the people in the Capitol, and full and pizza-fatigued protestors groaned as a desperate pizza guy tried to pawn off three more slices of pepperoni on you.
A fun and sustainable side effect of the “pizza revolution” was a suddenly bountiful supply of cardboard with which to craft protest signs. Signs written in sharpie on the top of pizza boxes became one of the most common sights around the Capitol. One inhabitant who had been there over a week decorated a hallway with multiple pizza boxes rotating between statistics about the budget repair bill and signs decrying Gov. Walker.
One of the biggest misnomers that has been reported is that protestors were “trashing the Capitol”. While the Capitol certainly doesn’t resemble its usual cavernous and gleaming self with the signs taped everywhere, the protestors have been quite responsible. The UW Teaching Assistants Association has organized people to help pick up around the Capitol. At all hours volunteers with trash bags are picking up, and most protestors have been quite responsible about keeping things in trashcans and not making an undue mess. Even the much publicized drum circle, which has been an ever-present sight in the center of the rotunda on the ground floor, clears the middle each night and scrubs the floor before they set up camp for the overnight nap. Thank you notes popped up for the state workers who have kept the bathrooms stocked with paper towels and toilet paper around the Capitol.
The signs have been one of the highlights of the whole protest. Many are generic printed ones that the major unions have been handing out, but some of the handcrafted ones can be incredibly clever. Two of the favorites were a sign hung in the rotunda that asked “Why Can’t We Be Friends With Benefits”, which another stated “Screw Us and We Multiply”. The teachers have reached into the glossary of education references and admonished the governor to “Fix It or Take a Consequence”. One particularly amusing individual has marched around for quite some time with a sign proclaiming “I Blame Favre”. Not necessarily topical, but definitely a crowd pleaser.
The chants have been primarily driven by the drum circle, a bucket and percussion-banging group of youths who have provided the cadence for the protests. The noise of the drummers has provided a constant reminder of the protest, and as an auditory representation of the pulse of the protests. Each of the chants is inexorably driven by the drums, and they have increased the power of the chants tenfold. The side effect, though, is that they get perpetually stuck in your head, and tend to wake up with “this is what democracy looks like” repeating over and over in your head.
The cheers have not been incredibly varied, but the most common ones that you eventually here over and over again until they never leave your rapidly wearying brain are: “kill the bill” (naturally, since that’s the whole point of the protests), “this is what democracy looks like” (the most popular of the old-school chants), “hey-hey, ho-ho, Scott Walker has got to go (from the wishful thinking but personal standpoint), “union-busting, that’s disgusting (nothing fires up a crowd like a little call and response), “the whole world is watching” (which seemed amusingly egotistical until South Korea and Egypt sent us pizza), and “the people united will never be defeated” (the most declarative of them). In the last two days as they have attempted to close the Capitol, “Who’s house? Our House!” has emerged as a new favorite.
The other reoccurring event in the rotunda is speakers on megaphones. The range of speakers has been quite varied, from teachers to laborers to generally concerned citizens. The range of speeches has run a predictable variety as well. Some are quite moving, some are quite fiery and passionate, and others are the expected confusing rambles that will occur when a concerned public citizen with questionable public speaking abilities gets a public forum. The crowd of listeners was usually a packed rotunda ground floor, and a circle of individuals leaning on the first floor balcony. Most of the speeches have ended with one of the major cheers, so the crowd can applaud the speaker and then do one of their favorite chants.
One of the more comical events each day occurred late in the afternoon when, behind the safety of his office door in the east wing on the first floor, Governor Walker would give his daily press conference. All of the protestors would flood into the east wing, lining the staircases and packing the hallways, and chant as loudly as possible at the closed door of the governor’s office. The rest of the Capitol is basically vacant at these points, and if the Capitol were a boat, it would tip over down King Street. It also was just a funny sight, as thousands of angry protestors chanted at a nondescript door at the end of a long hallway. The door seemed unperturbed by the situation.
There was also a set of TV screens set up on the second floor in the north gallery where protestors in the rotunda could keep watch of events in the Senate and in the Assembly, as well as whenever the not-so-popular Gov. Walker gave his speeches. (Those were not seen by many people, as everyone was in the east wing yelling at his door.) This let to some pretty crazy times when the more bizarre events took place, like the two questionable votes in the Assembly that led, respectively, to the Gordon Hintz speech that has become a YouTube sensation and the “Shame” chant that Assembly Dems rained upon the Republicans after their unusually rapid vote that passed the bill in the Assembly. The reaction in the rotunda was more in response to what seemed to be going on rather than the specific substance, as the screens were too far away and the many speakers throughout the Capitol echoing too much to be truly audible.
The Assembly Democrats, being the only ones present after the departure of the Wisconsin 14, became instant cult heroes, sporting orange shirts that read “Assembly Democrats Fighting For Working Families”. It was a common occurrence for the rotunda to break into massive applause and cheering as the orange shirts appeared on the north balcony to wave at the crowd. Many of the Assembly Dems, including Peter Barca, Brett Hulsey, Cory Mason, Mark Pocan, and Joe Parisi appeared on floor of the rotunda to give pep talks to the crowd. The residents of the Capitol would give them hugs as they walked around the Capitol, and profoundly thank them for their attitude. They doggedly stayed awake to hear testimony at all hours of the nights, rotating in shifts of four so that everyone who wanted to speak had a chance. Admittedly, it has been slightly self-serving for them, since they have firmly placed themselves on the side of the protestors psychologically the instant they see the orange shirt.
Another set of cult heroes throughout the sleepover was the firefighters. According to Gov. Walker’s budget proposal, firefighters and police officers would be exempt from the elimination of collective bargaining rights. The firefighters’ union was outspoken in their support of the protests, often marching through the rotunda and around the Capitol in full gear, led by bagpipes, and holding signs stating “Firefighters for Labor”. The crowd would cheer wildly whenever the firefighters would walk through each level of the Capitol, and the sound of bagpipes became another familiar element of the continuous noise within the rotunda.
Often the speeches took on a very local flavor, and the biggest trick every speaker had in their back pocket was pure Wisconsin: if the speech isn’t going well, invoke the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. It predictably never failed to get a rise out of the crowd, and the speech was back on its way. Late in the first week of protests, cornerback Charles Woodson released a statement in support of the protestors, and the next day Woodson’s #21 jersey started popping up all over the Capitol. There’s really nothing more predictable than the love of a Wisconsinite for their Packers.
For those of us who slept there multiple nights, we all had certain spots that became home. Mine was the short hallway on the first floor (the Capitol is labeled European style, with the ground floor first, then the first floor, etc) just outside the rotunda between the North and East galleries. Certain landmarks became as familiar as the street signs and businesses around my actual home: the bust of Fighting Bob La Follette just outside the hallway, the mural of legislation that was always visible in the rotunda from my spot, and the familiar signs that had been taped on each side of my little home, including a sign that a little girl had propped up next to her stuffed unicorn one morning that read “This Unicorn Would Make A Better Governor”. For many, what had been a confusing building became second nature, as we would wander confidently during the wee hours to the bathrooms or to visit people that we had met throughout.
The friends that were made during the early days of the sleep-in added another special element to it. You would see people that you had seen day in and day out, and stop and chat with them about other things they had seen and heard. Within those friends grew an information network that became one’s only source of news in the isolation of the dome. People would share what they had heard from friends at home, or on the news, or something they had looked up on their smart phone. Eventually, those same friends morphed into a support network; quick to provide a hug or reassuring words whenever your fatigue and stress was setting in. In the eye of such political turmoil, those people got each other through it, and kept each other strong.
The early sleepers were much less equipped than the later ones. The people who started in the first days rarely had much more than a sleeping bag and a pillow, and we often commented to each other about how hard the marble surface of the Capitol was. It wasn’t until a few days into the sleep-in that air mattresses and much more comfortable sleeping surfaces started to appear. By the end of the first week, the sleepover had become much more accessible as the people joining the sleep-in brought more and more resources into the fray. In one way it made it possible to have significantly larger crowds of all-night protestors, but in another way it made it easier to be critical of the sleepers as more of a slumber party crowd than a protest.
The ingenuity of some of the volunteers who helped those protesting long hours cannot be overlooked. A small group of people set up a first aid station in the north gallery that provided protestors with basic health needs like vitamins, cough drops, cold medication, feminine hygiene products, and other things to keep the long-term and rapidly fatiguing protestors healthy. Another group setup an info station with rally information, rules about sleeping in the Capitol, sleepover signups, blue painters tape so signs could be affixed without damaging the marble, and other handy reading material. Yet another group created a children’s zone isolated away in the north wing. The area was filled with butcher paper and markers, board games, legos, and plenty of other amusements so that people who wanted to stop by with children could do so.
The surprising development was when families began to stay over. It became a relatively common sight to spy a mother and two children on an air mattress here, or a set of parents and three kids there. The families were a welcome addition to the all-nighters, and added a further sense of responsibility to the protestors to focus on keeping it peaceful. Walking around late at night, it wasn’t uncommon to see parents reading to their kids around their little sleeping spot, or kids working on their own signs (they tended to be topical, if blunt) with looks of focused concentrations as they sharpied their message onto a discarded pizza box.
The longer a person stayed in the Capitol, the further removed from normal time they became. I remember several conversations with other long-time sleepers that started with “what day is it?” or “what day did I start here?” as we attempted to swap stories. I participated in a conversation with several others that stalled as everyone attempted to reconstruct what the day and date truly was. The dim light inside the rotunda made it tough to discern what time of day it was, lending to a natural decay of our usual diurnal cycle. Sleep became a series of random naps, and not a normal eight-hour nighttime sleep. The vacant but determined look of the long-time sleepers was a common sight, and led to positive feedback from those that couldn’t spend the time to stay there.
The whole process took on a surreal feeling, but an incredible sense of import. There was something historic happening, and each and every person there took on a belief that they were personally responsible for helping battle the bill. The chants and speeches were passionate and moving, and they rejuvenated each person who began to feel that they were powerless in the standoff between the two sides in this budget fight. Everyone involved in the protests did an exceptional job. The police officers and other law enforcement officials who were stationed throughout the Capitol were incredible; they were fair, respectful, polite, and efficient throughout. Protestors often took the time to thank them for all their work, and they responded with genuine appreciation. The protestors can be commended for the pride they took in maintaining a peaceful protest, whether that be running panels on non-violent demonstration, wearing signs that said “Remember: This Is A Peaceful Protest”, or just approaching people with different opinions with a calm face and a fair mind. It was a remarkable three weeks at the Capitol, and everyone involved will carry those memories with a sense of history. They were part of the greatest American protest of the twenty-first century.