You have probably noticed that my town—Madison, Wisconsin—has been in the news a little bit lately. Back when I was a political blogger, I might have devoted quite a few posts to the ongoing battle between public employees and Republican Governor Scott Walker. As it is, I confined my commentary to Twitter because I know a few amongst the readership do not share my political opinions. I even deleted a few of my angrier tweets, especially over the past weekend, in deference to some of my friends and followers.
Politics aside, the spectacle on our Capitol Square has been extraordinary. These are the biggest protests in Madison since the Vietnam Era, and I’d have to dig into the archives to see if a protest ever drew 68,000, as one estimate of Saturday’s crowd had it. Right-wing blogs, talk-show hosts, and the Fox News Channel have tried to portray the protests as a gigantic orgy of hatred, or as a riot, but that’s projection—fact is, these protests have been almost impossibly peaceful. There were exactly zero arrests on Saturday. In a crowd of 68,000, you’d think somebody would have gotten busted for lighting up a smoke in the Capitol or something, but even that didn’t happen. A former Madisonian who blogs for one of the big liberal websites noted that Wisconsin is a place where even the angry mobs are polite, and nothing has happened so far that would make a reasonable observer think otherwise.
In case you missed it over the weekend, our friend Jeff of AM, Then FM, wrote about the week that was, and provided a fine selection of appropriate tunes. Eric Boehlert of Media Matters tweeted a plea over the weekend to Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, and/or Eddie Vedder to get themselves to Madison to pitch in, but so far only Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine has been in town, last night.
When I got on Twitter a year ago, I was reluctant, and I was skeptical about its value, but I can say now that it’s become a necessary tool if you want to stay connected, and I can’t imagine online life without it. At his blog, veteran journalist and marimba expert Tim Morrissey wrote about the value of Twitter and the performance of Madison reporters during protest week.
(A sign noted at the protests late last week said, “More cowbell, less Walker.” Coincidentally, 30 Days Out provided a selection of tunes with cowbell, and is absolutely right about the greatest cowbell song of all. Hint: It’s not “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”)
A more overtly political side of this post is on the flip, which you can skip if you want.
The question up here now is how long the standoff will go on. The 14 Democratic state senators who fled the state last week to keep the Senate from achieving a quorum say they will stay away until Walker agrees to negotiate the terms of his plan to eliminate collective bargaining rights. Too many times I have seen Democrats take what they call a firm stand on principle only to declare victory by some criteria only they can see, thereby surrendering the principle and selling their constituents down the river, so I’m concerned about their resolve. (By threatening to lay off 1,500 state workers starting Friday, Walker’s seriously turning up the heat on them.) Walker has said he will not compromise on his plan, and I believe him—to give one inch would be to bring down hell from the right-wing media, and the Tea Party people who helped put him into office would work just as hard to push him out of it. Similarly, it would take three Republican state senators to defect from the majority to stop the Walker plan, and for the same reasons—Fox News and the Teabaggers—none of them are likely to do it. So we wait, eyeball to eyeball, to see who blinks first.
I have said for years that there are pockets of Madison where it’s still 1967—where the ideals and the spirit of that far-gone year remain a daily reality in the lives of the people. This protest is not really of that era, though. The roots of this action go further back: to the days when people first realized that collective action is the surest way for workers to ensure that employers will respect their rights—to the sit-down strikes at the auto plants in the 1930s, to the anthracite coal strike of 1902, to the very birth of the labor movement in the last quarter of the 19th century. As then, so now: beyond the terms of a labor contract, there are broader issues at stake involving the dignity of workers and the limits of power.
As the standoff continues, I know whose side I’m on. Whose side you’re on is between you and your conscience.