Voices and pictures from Madison, Wisconsin, protests

We Are Wisconsin from Finn Ryan on Vimeo.

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.

tall shot of rotunda.jpg

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."

family.jpg 3 Republicans.jpg emails.jpg what democracy sleeps like.jpg kids.jpg kochbrothers.jpg pizza.jpg SAT.jpg rights and respect.jpg big shot.jpg

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!


  1. GOP America bringing us back a century of social development. The party that claim to want small government is the same party that uses the heavy government hand to curb freedom.

    1. With the Citizen’s United ruling, expect the Corporate-bought representatives (GOP, for now) to continue winning elections going forward.

      1. Everyone knows that the Citizen’s United ruling allowed the same rights to unions as to corporations. Why pretend otherwise?

  2. Thanks, Maggie!

    I hope that you’ve had the chance to consider that strong public unions are a big part of what allows State scientists to do their job impartially, without needing to feel personally threatened by political retribution as a result of corporate pressure. I always sound like I’m getting out my tinfiol hat when I try to talk about this, let me just paste these letters from my Uncle again, instead.

    Dear Editor,

    I am a professional hydrologist and private environmental consultant in support of collective bargaining rights for public employees. Collective bargaining is a fundamental worker’s right; a human right. And more than that, government cannot effectively function without strong unions. How would I know that? From 1976 to 2006 I proudly worked as a water resources specialist for the Department of Natural Resources. For 25 years of my 30 year DNR career, I was a dues paying union member represented by the Wisconsin Science Professionals and American Federation of Teachers. My job included enforcing environmental regulations. At times, wealthy polluters with strong connections at high levels of elected government took exception to enforcement. And at times I and other DNR colleagues were put under strong pressure to back off of enforcing laws that were designed to protect the public health, environment, and fish and wildlife habitat. And a few times when I didn’t back off, the pressure focused solely me. At that point, the only thing that protected my career and execution of laws to protect natural resources was the union.

    Many people are aware that the loss of the Natural Resources Board appointed Secretary compromised the DNR, turning it more political. Now eliminate or weaken unions and the political influence will permeate the agency at far deeper levels. Corporate, moneyed interests will crush the rights of citizens and destroy natural resources. Clean progressive government that had been a trademark of Wisconsin will become a distant memory.


    Dave Marshall
    Underwater Habitat Investigations LLC


    Dear Senator Miller and Erpenbach, over the last several days I had attended the rallies in support of “killing the bill” and plan to attend more. I wanted to testify against the bill but didn’t get a chance. I’m sending you this email to thank you and your Democratic colleagues for your courage and strong message why this is terrible legislation. Thousands are very grateful for your stand!

    Below is testimony that I was prepared to deliver.

    Dave Marshall, Licensed Professional Hydrologist
    Underwater Habitat Investigations LLC
    8951 Clay Hill Road
    Barneveld, WI 53507-9777

    I am a licensed professional hydrologist and private environmental consultant here to support the collective bargaining rights of public employees. But it is more than just preserving fundamental workers rights and fairness; it is also about maintaining good government. Without strong unions, workers will be intimidated and told to play along with politics of the day – even when that may include violating the law and public trust. How do I know this? I worked for DNR from 1976 to 2006 and many of us from time to time had been threatened; specifically told not to enforce the law. And the only entity that protected our jobs and execution of our legal responsibilities was the union*. Without strong unions, effective government will be a memory of the past.

    * For background, here is just one example: I was threatened with termination in 1985 after I initiated enforcement action against a factory farm in Jefferson County. The large-scale farm had clearly violated anti-pollution laws (including Wisconsin Statutes Chapter 29.29) with the discharge of untreated wastewater into a tributary of Rock Lake. However, even though the fine (that presented in the form of a Warden’s ticket) amounted to only $325.00, the CEO decided to punish the lead investigator (me) by demanding my termination. He was very upset that a citizen group opposing the factory farm expansion was using the enforcement action as part of their argument before the Jefferson County Board. The CEO was also a significant contributor to Tommy Thompson at the time. So a meeting was held between the DNR Southern District Director Doug Morrisette, Thompson Administration and CEO attorney. While my supervisor defended my actions that were clearly within the law and indeed required of my position, my union (American Federation of Teachers) was ultimately the only thing that saved me from that political witch hunt.

    It is extremely stressful working for DNR and my former colleagues deserve much more as do all public employees. I have to admit that private consulting work has been much less stressful with greater compensation. Something has to change with the way public workers are treated.

  3. Notice the firefighters (who are exempt from the bill) stand with the protesters…

    The cops on the other hand (also exempt from the bill) not so much.

      1. I know, I just saw, and I am happy to say I was mistaken. It’s wonderful, those cops made a cynic smile. They’re alright in my book.

  4. I highly recommend the coverage that Scout and Jude have had on offer at First Draft during this debacle.

    Scout also did a lot of NOLA blogging (and working) and has an awesome ‘voice’.

  5. THANK YOU!!! this is exactly the kind of info and photos I have been craving. so important to get the message out that this is about real people.

  6. Obama, Nov 2007 “If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I’m in the White House, I will put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself, I’ll will walk on that picket line with you as President of the United States of America. Because workers deserve to know that somebody is standing in their corner.”

        1. Listen, I don’t support either party or any politicians but that site is FULL of inconsistent and refutable “things” that Obama has done. Let’s just take a look at what came up when I clicked the link “Obama has created more private sector jobs in 2010 than during the entire Bush years.”

          A president does not create private sector jobs. Even if he had the ability to do that (he doesn’t) it is ignoring the sheer number of jobs LOST in the past 3 years.

          That site is funny, but that is it. It blindly supports Obama with loose “facts” just like Bush supporters blindly supported him with loose “facts.”

          Can’t you guys rise above your worship of politicians that espouse your idealogy with their mouths but turn their backs on it when it comes time to prove it?

          1. Can’t you guys rise above your worship of politicians that espouse your idealogy with their mouths but turn their backs on it when it comes time to prove it?

            First, there is one of me. Second, that wasn’t worship. That was the first link I came across that documented what Obama has done – as a response to someone who says he has done nothing.

            Now, if you want to say he’s done nothing right, I suggest you refresh that link 20 times and shut your yap for the 30 seconds that will require. Any one of them is debatable. The totality is not.

          2. Those are all awesome. To bad about Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, submission to Wall St., tax cuts to the wealthy, expansion of Bush privacy violations..etc. etc….. You could make a counter link to that could go on for ages.

            Anyway, I hope Obama lives up to his word and heads up to Madison to join the protesters.

          3. Any one of them is debatable. The totality is not.

            What does that even mean? Is the totality comprised of something other than the things that are debatable?

  7. I’ve never been in a union and probably never will be but I’ll be out there tomorrow with my cousin joining the protests.

  8. Wow, just so beautiful. Makes me really hopeful. These are Americans, not politicians or media analysts. These are Americans that feel and show passion and are engaging in government without violence, without juvenile antics.

  9. The truly sad thing is this is exposing the fact that Wisconsin is not that different from Texas, with small liberal urban enclaves surrounded by Redneckistan. Read the editorials in the small town papers or even the blog pages on jsonline and you see a whole lot of small people with small jobs in small towns who have been told for YEARS to hate the evil unions. Get one county north of I94 and it’s all Relevant Radio and Rush. Ignorance is so sad.

    1. You actually don’t have to go too far, for that. My wife and I had mid-wife services just outside Spring Green for our last baby, and we live on the Madison/Verona border. Just about 5 minutes outside of Middleton on Highway 14 is an anti-abortion road sign, sponsored by a church. Closely following it was a series of signs extorting us to repent, or find ourselves in Hell.

      It’s as if the blue and red voters are standing on the borders of Madison and Milwaukee, just waiting for the other group to cross over.

  10. Great post Ryan!

    I wanted to also share with the Boing Boing community that there is a grassroots reporting effort going on by the citizen protesters. They started a YouTube channel here: http://www.youtube.com/user/WeThePeopleWisconsin . This channel was started by my amazing superhero cousin Katy Swalwell (props!).

    Folks in Madison, as well as from solidarity events planet-wide are encouraged to post footage to YouTube and then email a link to wethepeoplewisconsin@gmail.com so they can include it on their channel. Not only does it help spread the word, but those folks spending 24/7 defending the national idea of unions benefit from knowing they’re not alone.

    Maybe we can get these links bumped to an update so the word can spread? Thanks!!

  11. When you promise the moon and give them a grainy picture of it, people tend to not notice the few things you have done right. Hence the 44% approval ratings :o/

  12. This Governor and Legislature were elected because Democrats didn’t show up in enough numbers last November to defeat them.

    If you really want to impress me, turn this into the kind of electoral coalition that can blow away people like Scott Walker and assure that they never get a sniff of power in your state ever again.

    Even better, people on both sides show up at the polls regularly, respecting one another afterward.

    That would be called democracy, small “d”. In which there is no such thing as “once and for all” for either side, but reason and civility for all.

  13. When I first visited Madison I was deeply impressed by the location of the capitol building. It’s surrounded on 4 sides by active public space. The Sunday public market completely surrounds it. If there was ever a perfect battleground for this kind of confrontation, it’s Madison.

    I wish my state capitol were this public a place.

  14. “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. ”

    You hadn’t seen what it really looks and feels like before? Are you pro-war or forgetful?

    “Between January 3 and April 12, 2003, 36 million people across the globe took part in almost 3,000 protests against the Iraq war.”



  15. Third picture from the bottom – can anyone point me to the source of those numbers? I saw that on Facebook a few days ago but when I googled, I got DC, Maine, Hawaii, SC, Georgia, NY, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Delaware in the bottom 10 for SAT scores in 2009; Mississippi, Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee, Michigan, DC, Wyoming, SC, Arizona and New Mexico in the bottom 10 for ACT scores in 2010. Virginia and NC aren’t in the bottom 10 on either of those lists.

    1. I will add that Wisconsin IS #2 in the nation in SAT scores (still 2009 numbers) but is 18th in 2010 ACT scores – and got beat by VA by four places.

      If you weight the scores evenly and combine, WI is 3rd. TX, GA, FL, SC, and DC are the bottom 5. NC is 38th and VA is 30th.

  16. Wait, as somebody who has never held a union job, I’m not really understanding this whole thing.

    Let’s say I want to become a teacher in Wisconsin, and that I don’t particularly want join the union. (Perhaps I disagree with their politics, policies, methods, or whatever.) Am I able to teach public school without being a union member? In other words, am I able to negotiate my salary directly with the government, as I would with most other jobs?

  17. Solidarity forever! The US already has very weak rights for workers and the unions have been attacked throughout the decades. In northern europe there are both stronger unions AND much stronger rights and social security for workers in both public and private sectors. And high quality public healthcare for all. That is no accident.

  18. But good news: this is some real-world bad PR for the Repooplican Potty. When everyday working people from such a wide range of professions stand up like this, it makes these kinds of issues more attention-worthy and palatable. But why the hell does Scott Walker, Taxes Deranger, have so many Facebook followers?

  19. Whatever happens next, this has totally changed how I look at Wisconsin. It’s gone from “the cheese state” to “freedom to protest” state in my mind. (Though the cheese part is still important. We all like cheese.)

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