Last night, I joined the scattered groups of people walking down Madison, Wisconsin's State Street towards the State Capitol Building. There weren't the mighty throngs from last weekend, but for a Thursday night, at 8:00 pm, the smaller clutches still made an impact. They came up both sides of the block. A group of five here. Another three over there. Four coming up right behind them.
I wanted to see, for myself, what was happening in Wisconsin—what it really looks and feels like when a diverse swath of Americans band together for a common cause. From that first realization that all the people on State Street were going to the same place I was going, I knew this was going to be a new experience.
That's "Kill the Bill" by the way, not a threat to a person.
In fact, I'd gotten a hint of that difference earlier in the day, when some of the people I'd eaten lunch with ducked out early to spend the last 20 minutes of their lunch hour at the protest. The layout of Madison is somewhat uniquely conducive to public action. Unlike every other capitol city I've ever spent time in, their Capitol Building isn't located in the middle of a half-abandoned downtown, miles from where most people live, work, and play. The University of Wisconsin is a short walk away. All the streets that stick out from the Capitol like spokes on a bike tire are packed with businesses—most of which have signs in the windows offering support to the protesters. Residential neighborhoods are close.
Many protests I've been to in the past were made up largely of students, retirees, and people whose main hobby was protesting things. That's not the case here. The urban geography of Madison makes it relatively easy for working people to participate. I think a big part of why Madison has been able to maintain this protest is simply that maintaining it—while simultaneously maintaining a life—is relatively easy, compared to other cities.
This protest looks different from inside the Capitol, too. Yes, there are the requisite meditators—OM-ing their way to a legislative compromise. And, yes, there are a few obvious old hippies, leading chants or standing around looking generally pleased with the world. But these people are the minority. Most of the Wisconsinites I saw at the Capitol didn't look like "protesters". They looked like me—professionals who'd come over straight after work. They looked like my Father—teachers with union t-shirts pulled on over their business casual wear. They looked like my Mother—working women with big smiles and big, comfy sweatshirts. And there were LOTS of them. At least a few hundred, I'd guess. My hosts told me I'd missed the much larger crowds that come right after work.
These people were packed around the Rotunda. Their air mattresses and cots were tucked into little sheltered corners of the upper floors. And the walls all over the buildings were covered in posters and signs and printed off sheets with messages of support from all over the state. It didn't feel like a protest, it felt like a party. The Wisconsin protesters are unhappy, sure. They're angry that their Governor wants to eliminate the right of public employees to bargain collectively for their salaries and working conditions. But they aren't angry in the sense of being violent, ill-tempered, or even so much as downbeat.
People talked and laughed. A couple of guitarists had set up impromptu concerts in the hallways. The protesters shared food and camping supplies. They'd set up a first-aid station. They organized volunteers to sweep and mop the rotunda, to keep it clean. I saw signs all over the place urging protesters to pick up after themselves—"This is our house," the signs said.
A graduate student in engineering from the University of Wisconsin told me that his TA union was offering homework help. He was thinking about doing a series of science demonstrations, just to help keep people entertained and to do his job while he also protested.
Honestly, I've never seen anything like this. I spent about an hour wandering through the crowd, moved to the point that I developed a Keanu Reeves speech impediment. All I could say was, "Wow."
FYI: The video at the beginning of this post was made by Finn Ryan, an awesome Madison media producer who was also responsible for the beautiful video about the impact of climate change on maple syrup production that I posted here a few months ago.
And big thanks to David Zaks for lending me his iPhone to take these photos, and then uploading them to Flickr!
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.