Protesters inside the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda on February 16, 2011, just days after new governor Scott Walker introduced his controversial “budget repair bill”. Photo by Callen Harty.
Before Governor Scott Walker took office he had already created controversy by stating he would refuse funds for a new light rail system that had already been approved with federal money set to come to Wisconsin. He demanded that the state stop working on a biofuels project at the University of Wisconsin. He proposed replacing the Department of Commerce with a public/private enterprise that he and his fellow Republicans could control. Progressives knew that with Republican control of both houses there would be a good chance of conservatives creating new laws that would be anathema to progressives. The Democrats, who were still in power–albeit with a lame duck governor–more or less rolled over on all of his demands.
Despite the steamroller start of his administration nobody expected the “budget repair” bill that Walker proposed on Friday, February 11. It would pretty much eliminate collective bargaining for all state employees, potentially end Medicaid in the state, and open up the selling of state property with a no-bid process. The very next day there was a protest at the Governor’s mansion. On Monday representatives of the University of Wisconsin’s Teaching Assistants Association (TAA) delivered protest Valentines to the Governor’s office at the Capitol. The next day about 5,000 people showed up at the Capitol to protest. At work that day I kept feeling that I should have been at the Capitol. Late in the day I went to my boss and asked for a last-minute vacation day the following day, Wednesday, February 16, in order to go and protest. I told her why I wanted it off and even though her politics were different than mine she okayed the request.
My first day at the protests was that following day, February 16. It was also the first day of protests for about 30,000 other Wisconsinites, a number which continued to grow over the following weeks and became what was known as the Wisconsin Uprising.
With exactly three years between that day and this I can still feel the rush of blood in my veins as I arrived at the Capitol that morning. An hour or more before a rally was scheduled to start thousands of people were already at the Capitol, both inside and out. Wisconsin and American flags waved in the February wind. Teachers and others marched around the square with hundreds and hundreds of signs–some of them incredibly clever and some of them a little over the top–all of them fueled by the passion of citizens whose government was ignoring their concerns and instituting a radical shift in the direction of the state with a previously hidden agenda.
I saw the first signs with the word “solidarity” on them that day, the first signs about replacing Walker and about recalls, signs from Democratic representatives showing support, signs with hearts (which later became a lasting symbol). The only one that was missing on my first day of the protests was the Wisconsin fist, which later became a ubiquitous symbol of resistance to Scott Walker’s agenda.
Inside the building hundreds upon hundreds of citizens gathered on every floor of the building with the rotunda the central focus of activity, as it was designed to be. Voices rose and fell, echoing on the marble walls throughout the building, a crescendo here followed by an eerie moment of silence and then a bubbling of voices again demanding fairness and asking that the people’s voices be heard. There was no organization and yet there somehow seemed to be an organic unity to the voices and actions of the people. It was breathtaking.
Back outside crowds continued to gather. I saw friends who were there for the same reasons as me. I took many photographs, the first of thousands over the course of the uprising, some of which included people I didn’t know at the time but who became friends through the battles to follow. Every segment of our society was represented. Many children were there with signs in support of their teachers. Union men and women marched with their locals. People who had never belonged to a union in their lives also marched with them. By the time the rally began there were an estimated 30,000 citizens. Later crowds would dwarf the crowd that day but at the time it was phenomenal. It was the first time in my life I had seen such power in the people who rightfully own the Capitol and whose voices the government is supposed to represent. It was electric.
I don’t even remember who spoke at the rally that day. I remember the people–the common, every-day, ordinary people like me who felt called to be there at that moment in time and whose voices rose together to speak up for what they believed. Too often we all sit on our behinds watching the television news and even when bills are passed that anger us we remain seated, blindly staring at the screen in front of us. But on that February day, and for months to follow, citizens moved from their couches to the streets and thousands got involved in politics in ways that they never had before. The passion was palpable and real and beautiful to behold, and while it eventually died down as it became clear that there was no way to stop the steamroller I learned at that time that it is within the people to rise up in times of need. It is still there within my fellow citizens. I can only hope that when the time is right something will reignite that passion in those tens of thousands of people who came to be with each other during that time. I wait patiently for the beast that fell back to sleep to once again be reawakened and roar back to life.