Inside the Wisconsin state Capitol on Monday, June 6, Supreme Court Justices began hearings on the controversial collective bargaining measure proposed by Governor Scott Walker. Outside the Capitol, thousands of community members and employees from across the state rallied against the Walker-sponsored budget, chanting "Recall Walker" and "Walker, we won't back down! This is a union town!"
Former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold led the march from Madison Fire Station 1 toward the Capitol. Feingold was born in Janesville, Wisconsin, and marched up to the Capitol with Rock County AFSCME member past the standing "Walkerville" tent encampment, whose friendly inhabitants set up refreshment tables to help crowds battle the crushing heat. Feingold refused to address speculation that he might oppose Scott Walker in the next election, but signs, T-shirts and chants of "Russ for Governor" indicated mounting support for his candidacy.
The mood was defiant, when not musical. Union cabs and pedestrian vehicles sounded their "this is what democracy looks like" horn rhythms, while a team of bagpipers and steel drummers lifted the crowds' spirits with booming, triumphant melodies.
Of course, opposition to the budget prevailed as the main reason for attendance, although different provisions in the bill provoked different protester reactions.
A Diverse Set of Causes
At 4:00 a.m. Monday morning, Kendall, Wisconsin dairy farmer Joel Greeno woke up, milked and fed his cows, unloaded some hay in anticipation of stormy weather, and prepped his tractor for the two hour ride to Madison, where he and his deep orange Allis-Chalmers three-wheeler (American flags flanking the engine) joined thousands of firefighters, farmers, teachers, community members, and nurses to protest Governor Scott Walker's budget proposal, which threatens to drastically cut funding for crucial public services across Wisconsin.
Greeno, who used to work extra hours at a barbell manufacturing plant to sustain his fledgling farm, fears that the proposed changes to eligibility requirements for BadgerCare Plus, Wisconsin's Medicaid-funded family planning program, will leave his wife, two young daughters, and fellow self-employed dairy farmers without a viable health care plan.
"The whole idea is just ridiculous. The legislature can play all the budget games they want, but they can't fix the state until they fix the dairy industry, or until the burden of economic responsibility is shifted a bit more on the shoulders of the rich."
Standing next to Greeno, organic dairy farmer John Kinsman nodded in agreement. The President of Family Farm Defenders, Kinsman came to Madison to fight for farmers and migrant workers who "have been hurt bad by the budget." Kinsman's cowboy hat once belonged to a migrant farmer who struggles daily to remain self-employed and support his family in the face of cutbacks to critically needed services.
Also marching were a group of peace activists with "No Drone" signs objecting to a drone aircraft training facility proposed for Volk Field Air National Guard Base in central Wisconsin. Wisconsin's share of the $8 million construction costs is being considered as part of the state budget process. The proposed drone facility would run a training program for unmanned drone aircraft currently used for identifying targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as Yemen and Gaza.
M&I Bank Targeted Again
Midway through their second lap around the Capitol, protesters converged upon M&I Bank, whose top executives donated $54,000 to the Walker campaign and are slated to receive $71 million in bonuses despite unpaid TARP debts. Chants of "Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!" and "Chop chop chop from the top, make the bosses take their losses!" accompanied an attempt to storm and occupy the bank's foyer. Protesters who made it into the bank's entrance were told by police and bank security to "get out, or get arrested." Amid chaotic pushing and shoving, police forcibly ejected several protesters from the premises, and arrested two others on a count of disorderly conduct. A young woman was injured when a police officer violently yanked a door shut onto her ankle.
A David Koch impersonator, dressed in a top hat and long black coat tails, cheered, "this is what plutocracy looks like." He claimed to have been "visiting his buddy Mark Furlong" at his M&I offices.
Marching to Preserve the Middle Class
Many protesters remained anxious that their professions would soon suffer from hostile legislation and worried about the state of the middle class in general.
"We believe that the attacks on public employees will trickle down to affect firefighters," said Kevin Sherry, union vice president of Firefighters Local 311, adding that, "Walker and his corporate cronies are trying to bury the working class beneath an all-out attack."
Sherry also urged the middle class to fight to preserve "its voice," one of the few remaining weapons it has left against encroaching republicans and conservatives, who, he said, hope to neuter the bargaining power of blue-collar workers.
Bill Bryan, whose Steel Workers Union flag read "Unity & Strength for Workers," vowed to "march and protest ad infinitum" until Governor Walker halted his effort to "take poor people's rights away." Like Sherry, Bryan expects Walker to "finish with the nurses, and the teachers, and the teaching assistants, and then come after [steel workers]."
Increasing Number of Scuffles and Arrests
Peaceful relations between seasoned protesters like Bryan and law enforcement dominated most of the day's festivities, despite a few scuffles and citations. Two were arrested at the M&I building. Later in the day, Burlington, VT documentary filmmaker Sam Mayfield was arrested inside the Capitol.
Mayfield, who has traveled back and forth to Wisconsin since March documenting "the gentle uprising that's happening here," was stationed inside the Capitol when an officer "arbitrarily" began asking her and other protesters to leave. After flashing her press credentials, she was waved through by the same officer who had previously pushed her toward the exit.
Mayfield then noticed a crowd forming near the elevator, where the same officer was in the midst of arresting her assistant, fellow Vermonter and student Alex Noguer-Garcias. The documentarian tried to grab the camera dangling from her assistant's wrist, when the cop grabbed her arm and said, "Now you're getting arrested, too." The officer, who according to Mayfield "came out of the gates ready to swing," cited her and and Noguer-Garcia for disorderly conduct.
More protests are planned as the controversial state budget moves to the floor for debate.