A crowd of forty to sixty thousand, according to different estimates, circled the Wisconsin Capitol on the windy Saturday afternoon of March 10. This was the largest rally here in many months, no doubt because of the splendid weather, hovering around sixty degrees, but also because of the pent-up desire to gather. We wanted to see and be with each other again.
There weren’t so many students, of any age. This was, in sharp contrast to the Madison movements of forty-some years ago, a metaphorical Union City, somewhat proportionately middle-aged, accompanied by family members, from small children to teens, standing with mom, dad, or the grandparents: Teamsters from up north, SEIU mostly from Milwaukee, AFSCME (a union notably born in Madison) from all over the place, LIUNA members actually from Chicago, and of course teachers (mostly NEA) and health workers (assorted unions, mainly AFSCME). Firefighters, “Cops for Labor” (Dane County Deputy Sheriff’s Office, mostly). And that’s not mentioning the building trades, IBEW, IATSE (Madison’s theater workers), and (the student contingent) TAA from the UW just down State Street.
It was also the most racially diverse crowd in a year of events stretching back to the protests of last February. Occupy, mainly from Milwaukee, had something to do with that. So did Voces de la Frontera, the group of undocumented young people growing up in Wisconsin, now struggling for college scholarships and authenticated identity generally.
The fresh signs and buttons were interesting, as always. There’s a new art print appearing in local windows and on t-shirts of demonstrators who braved chilly winds: Ma Badger and the kiddies, with the slogan, “Don’t Let Your Badgers Grow Up to Be Weasels.” A popular joke, but one with a bit of emphasis on what kids need to learn, and how important teachers are. A few signs read, “Meet John Doe,” a double-reference to the 1940s film (in which Gary Cooper’s character realizes that fascism is about to take over) and the FBI probes into election finance irregularities that are apparently moving ever-closer to the governor’s office. A button, perhaps created during the previous week in response to the political assault on women: “You Can Cut Off My Reproductive Rights If I Can Cut Off Yours.” A baby buggy with a sign on it: “UNION THUG STARTER KIT.” (Dad, lounging on the grass nearby, was wearing an Elvis cardboard toupee.) And there were lots of humorous references to the governor’s time being up (presuming elections happen in June, and he is beaten), including gags about this weekend’s time change removing one more hour from his misrule. Other signs, more bitter, remarked on a Voter ID law that may or may not pass judicial muster.
The high point of speech-making was no doubt Lori Compas, a wedding photographer from Fort Atkinson, a town that has become something of a bedroom community for UW-Whitewater with a pinch of bohemia, along the picturesque Rock River. Compas is determined to challenge Scott Fitzgerald, state senate majority leader, in a recall. Democratic Party and union officials alike advised her not to bother. Organizing a small group in her kitchen (as John Nichols, following her on the podium, related), she defied the odds and the institutions. A few days ago the signatures were certified: there will be a recall election, in one of the more conservative districts in the state. Win or lose, the diminutive Lori Compas is a radical giant.
As the crowd filtered away, there was much waving, shaking hands, calling relatives and friends on cell phones, and keeping the children moving. It was a good Saturday, the best Saturday that anyone could remember for what seemed like a long time.