Matt, a close family friend, called on Wednesday and his voice was cracking with emotion when he told us that our 11-year-old probably wouldn’t have school tomorrow. He had been with other members of WEAC that evening listening to testimony before the Senate committee. Teachers were going ahead with plans to protest at the Capitol the next day. This was an extremely difficult decision for him and other teachers. The teachers we know didn’t want to call in sick or be out of the classroom.
As a civics/history lesson our family went down to the Capitol on Thursday to see the protests since our district cancelled school. I kept reminding my kids that if we were going to this sort of thing in some countries, say Egypt or Bahrain, they would have to worry about possibly getting shot. My 16-year-old saw some of his teachers and was able to talk to two of them in the very noisy, very chaotic Rotunda. One apologized for not being in school but was glad he was there getting a different kind of education. My kids had never been to a protest before this. The sound echoing off the marble walls was deafening. Spontaneous chants of “Kill the Bill,” “Tell me what democracy looks like-this is what democracy looks like” and others started up every few minutes. There were families with young kids, UW students, teachers and union supporters of all ages waving signs and camping out. It was an amazing atmosphere. Most of the action was inside but the steps leading up to the Capitol from State Street were full of people with some very creative signs.
We left the square and visited Lori, their aunt, who heads the Sociology Dept at Madison College (formerly MATC) a couple of blocks from the Capitol. She explained to the kids that the protests were not just about teachers’ salaries. The Budget Repair bill would have many consequences, most importantly collective bargaining rights. Unfortunately, the loss of these rights was not the focus of what was being talked about, at that point, in the media. [It has since become a central theme.] She is the director of a non-profit that serves people with disabilities and she was aware that this bill would also give the Governor and a hand-picked board of four the ability to make changes in Medical Assistance without legislative review. My brother and his wife rely almost solely on Medical Assistance. Could they be dropped because they were too expensive to keep?
Lori also explained how the Governor was looking to make changes to the UW System that would separate UW-Madison from the rest of the state schools. She believed that his intent was to gain more control over the UW-Madison’s board of Regents by inserting his appointees to this board (Walker has been very busy appointing friends and donors with questionable qualifications to take over various state agencies). On Thursday this was not being talked about in the media but an article in today’s paper finally addressed this issue. Biddy Marshall, UW-Madison Chancellor, states there may be a 20 percent tuition increase. Not good for our college freshman!
The govenor’s Budget Repair bill, the state Republican and Democratic legislature’s “maneuvering,” the unions reaction, the news coverage, social media’s role in mobilizing people and publicizing events at lightening speed…it’s all been a fascinating political storm to witness in my backyard (a backyard where I usually just watch birds!). This has certainly given me a crash course on Twitter. On Friday night, instead of being at a fish fry, I was watching a 30-minute online video of the Governor’s responses to questions by a local TV editorial board where Walker explained why he thought he had to strip teachers of their collective bargaining rights.
Events in Madison also have people from all over the country paying attention. They could be next! It was amazing to see signs in the rotunda and on the Capitol grounds carried by people from St. Louis, San Francisco, Toronto, Chicago and other cities and groups. There was a Cheesehead rally in NYC as well as in many places around the country.
But besides being a personal and political event, what continues to draw me in is the human event it has become. Walking around the Capitol and listening to speeches with people who want desperately to be heard, people who are tired of being victimized and people who aren’t used to doing this sort of thing made me feel connected on very basic level. This wasn’t about cheering a favorite team to the Rose Bowl or the Super Bowl (though there were free brats being handed out on Saturday). Most people were genuinely interested, they were friendly, they chuckled at the hundreds of creative signs,and most importantly they want to work together to find a solution to this problem. They want to do their part but they don’t want to give away the farm!
We’ve already had to do that too many times here in Wisconsin.