Dispatch from Wisconsin: ‘Whose House? Our House!’

Ann M. Schneider Mar 17, 2011

Half-melted snowmen still held union picket signs on the grounds of the Wisconsin State Capitol building when I arrived in Madison at noon on Friday, March 12.  The grounds were muddy from being camped on since Governor Scott Walker moved the three-week-old occupation outside.  A small crowd was circling the Capitol Square, and inside, an angry crowd cried, “Shame, shame,” outside the Assembly room.  That body had approved the numberless “budget repair bill” the night before without a required quorum. A speak-out continued in the Capitol rotunda under the pacific gaze of the Capitol police, augmented by the Wisconsin State Patrol in their Dudley Do-Right hats.

After the Walker administration ignored a March 8 court injunction to re-open the historic Capitol building to the public, the elected Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney declined the task of keeping protesters out, saying “I refused to put deputy sheriffs in a position to be palace guards.”

One popular chant was chalked on the sidewalk on the Capitol grounds.  It laid claim to the building itself and reminded each of the branches of government housed therein, “Whose House?  Our House!”

Meanwhile, exactly two Walker supporters among the crowd begged for a bruising (which was not delivered) with their flag-adorned poster that read “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” referring to the passage of the bill that removed collective bargaining rights from state employees.

But Saturday promised a Tractorcade around the Capitol Square.  And a chance to give a hero’s welcome to the Fabulous 14, the state senators who crossed the Illinois border to try to prevent the measure from being railroaded through the Republican-dominated legislature.

I joined my sister and her husband, both conscientious state employees, at the Capitol Square Saturday March 12 while buses from all over the Midwest brought protesters in the largest demonstration yet against the governor and his republican enablers.

At 10 a.m., people had already begun to gather on the square to watch the slow approach of 50 tractors driven by farmers from all over southern Wisconsin.   As one paper reported, a Spring Green farmer who drove seven hours with a manure spreader said, “ It really stinks but it smells better than what’s coming out of there,” pointing to the domed Capitol. By 3pm, the crowd had reached 100,000 people.

Dreamers, artists, musicians and loads of college-educated punsters put their best abilities on display all weekend in a carnival atmosphere that only the cold dampened. We natives are known as badgers for our lead-mining history, but Scott Walker’s stealth and hypocrisy coined him another name.  Walker is so unpopular that he was asked to leave a Capitol Square restaurant last week after its patrons objected to his presence.  Walker now uses a tunnel to make his entrances and departures. Someone placed a sign by the tunnel that reads, “Weasel entrance.”

Wisconsin law permits the recall of elected officials by gathering a number of signatures equal to 25 percent of the vote in the last gubernatorial election in the district in a 60-day period.   Walker is not subject to recall because he hasn’t served the required one year in office.   Wisconsin State Employees Union and its allies have campaigns well under way to replace the republicans legislators who voted for the anti-union measure which also makes severe cuts to health and education.  Saturday’s rally provided a big boost to gathering signatures, with some campaigns having met a third of their goal.

Meanwhile, calls for a General Strike are being given serious consideration in the local press.   Elections scheduled for April 5 will have wide consequences, including a choice between a sitting Supreme Court justice who said he wants the bench to be a “complement to the Republican legislature and governor;” and an advocate of campaign finance reform.  There is also a referendum approved for the ballot that would have Madisonians call for an amendment to the US Constitution to state that “only humans and not corporations are entitled to constitutional rights.”

The mayoral election will be a contest between the incumbent Dave Cieslewisz and erstwhile 1970s mayor Paul Soglin whose head was bashed in at a 1967 campus demonstration against Dow Chemical.  Cieslewisz gave voice to his constituents when he expressed shock that Walker told a prank caller that he considered inserting goons in Madison to break the unity of the capitol protesters.

Wisconsin’s body politic is alive and well and being preserved for posterity.  All of the hand-made posters that decorated the Capitol rotunda for three weeks were removed to another state building and made available for anyone to collect, as I did.  The Wisconsin Historical Society provided archive-quality bags for easy handling and passed out flyers reading “consider donating your sign or prop to an archive or museum that can keep it safe for years to come.  Let history know what happened here.”

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