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I’m hustling, but I can’t quite catch up to Jeremy Ryan. I’ve arrived early to his suggested
meeting place before our interview, the first floor of Capitol Rotunda, next to the Constitution.
But he’s on the move, rolling counterclockwise through the circular halls, away from the agreed
place as I approach. He looks intently focused on something just in front of him, but then, that
could just be because his mode of transportation moves when he leans forward; Ryan is, as
always, on Segway. Like an absurd silent movie, I chase him around the marble corridors. For
someone who’s repeatedly been labeled paranoid, he seems remarkably unconcerned about
what’s behind him.
“This kid is a monster douche. He’s the “liberal” version of the James O’Keefe the ACORN
-Illman808 on The Daily Page message boards, May, 2011
“I am thinking maybe he should switch to a Roomba and he could at least clean up all the crap
he’s spreading around.”
-William Hawkins, commenting on a picture of Ryan posted on Vicki McKenna’s wall, March,
“There’s a group of about 20-30 occupying Bascom to fight budget cuts/NBP and supposed
accompanying tuition hikes. CORRECTION: 20-30 people and Jeremy Ryan, who I’m pretty
sure is half man/half Segway.”
-Me, in consecutive tweets, April 2011
Well, don’t I just feel like an asshole.
It’s two days before my interview, and I’ve dug up a Channel 3000 article from June 2008.
Actually, dug up is misleading; it’s the first result when you Google “Jeremy Ryan Segway.” The
title of the article is “Anonymous Donor Gives Man Mobility: Segway Transporter donated to
Fast-forward 48 hours, and Ryan is explaining the nature of his disability in as much vivid detail
as anyone could possibly hope for. As it turns out, that article totally understated the extent of
his plight. Ryan tells me he has has Anderson-Tawil Syndrome, an extremely rare form of Long
QT that’s associated with arrhythmia, periodic paralysis and physical abnormalities (which Ryan
does not display). Combined with two car accidents in the same year, back in 2007, he was in
pretty rough shape.
“The most cardiac arrests anyone’s ever survived is two. I’ve survived five. Each time you only
have a five percent chance of living,” he told me. “I seem to get the brunt of the cardiac effects.”
He went on to explain his unique form of transportation. After the accidents, said Ryan, “I
couldn’t do crutches because that’s too much adrenaline. Because with the heart condition, the
cardiac arrhythmias are caused by too much adrenaline, so you can’t do. So what are you left
with? You’re left with a wheelchair, but if I did a wheel chair, I’d lose this leg as well, just due to
Hence the Segway. At six foot three and just 23 years old, it’s safe to say that Ryan’s height
when standing on his Segway’s platform make him a highly visible figure at the state Capitol,
even in large crowds. Also contributing to his visibility: his more than 20 arrests (nearly all
acquittals or dropped charges), the laminated tickets for which he brought with him both times we spoke. Months after tens of thousands of people decided it was finally time to spend a
weekend at home, to accept Gov. Scott Walker’s budget bill as a sad new reality, or to at
least bide their time until it was time for a recall, Jeremy Ryan continues to fight. Not for the
unions, though. For the First Amendment.
“For me it became about the First Amendment when I started realizing what infractions were
taking place. And some of these policies are years old. The no filming in the galleries [rule]
was created because someone got caught napping on their desk,” Ryan said. He reiterated
that viewpoint in regard to the restrictions on signs in the galleries, citing a Constitutional right
to “peaceably petition” the government.
Ryan and a few others – he specifically mentioned fellow activists CJ Terrell and Thi Le -
have been arrested dozens of times for actions he categorized as civil disobedience: Standing
in the Senate Gallery with signs or holding up a camera to film a part of the proceedings they
find particularly troubling. But they’ve been acquitted of nearly all charges. Ryan told me he
hopes onlookers will be able to separate arrests from actual wrongdoing.
“That’s one great thing we’ve seen throughout these Occupy protests and everything else is
people are starting to realize: Just because people get arrested, or just because people get beat
by police doesn’t mean they did anything wrong,” he said.
Ryan’s current job is running a Political Action Committee called Defending Wisconsin that’s
focused on gaining signatures in the effort to recall Walker. He tells me that he
doesn’t draw a salary from this.
“At this point we’ve decided to put all of our money toward expenses on the recall instead
of paying people … We have enough money where we could potentially start paying people
something, but it would definitely break into our efforts,” Ryan said. “We basically voted against
our best interests to have a salary.”
All that makes for a strange juxtaposition with what I thought I understood about him. That
visibility he’s attained on Capitol Square has bred false familiarity, but now I feel like I’m learning
a lot about Jeremy Ryan. But before we’re done talking he tells me a story involving cellphones,
homelessness and The United Arab Emirates, and suddenly I feel like I’ve learned nothing at all.
“My name is Jeremy Ryan and I am a 19 year old from Madison WI. On May 2nd 2007 I was
involved in a car crash … A Segway would allow me to have my life back and be mobile again. I
have little money. Due to the bills going delinquent because of the crash my credit was messed
up and I get denied for everything. I would be willing to do a rent or lease to own. I can show
3 forms of ID to verify I am not a scammer. I’m just a regular joe looking for help to get my life
-Ryan, in a Segwaychat.com forum, December 2007
“It is essential we have organization and early if we want a successful recall. So I am asking
you all to please donate what you can; $5, $10, $100 or anything above or between, every bit
counts. Together we can show Scott Walker what democracy looks like.”
-Text on the Defending Wisconsin PAC website
“Segway Jeremy Ryan has become a full-time member of the protests at the Wisconsin State
Capitol. Formerly a businessman, he gave up his business to join the fight for the middle class
in the State of Wisconsin. Through videos and writings he has informed hundreds of thousands
of people about what was going on at the Wisconsin State Capitol once the mainstream media
had mostly abandoned the protests. His full-time activism is completely funded by the people. If
you would like to help out please click here.”
-Notice following Ryan’s blog posts on Addictinginfo.com
Let me describe to you two men vying for your respect, your vote and your checkbook.
The first is a political reactionary, an attention hound and a perpetual mooch. Witness Ryan’s
blog postings on Addicting Info – in his latest, he finds an intentional grope by a conservative
police officer where, via the video he evidences, none exists. In other posts, he’s just as
inflammatory, blowing up seemingly innocuous situations in exactly the manner you might
expect from a cable news personality or hacky talk show host. For Sean Hannity, the the lyrics
of Common become evidence of President Barack Obama’s latent thuggery. For Jeremy Ryan,
a delayed school bus becomes evidence that Walker doesn’t care about school
children. Witness his Facebook account, on which he posted his latest blog article as his status
10 different times.
The second man is a success story; one who rose from poverty to attain enormous financial
success, then threw that life away for a cause he believed in. According to Ryan, his childhood
was spent in extreme poverty and occasional homelessness. After graduating high school
early, he moved to Madison at age 17 but lost his job at the Sitel call center in one of their many
rounds of layoffs before their eventual closure. He found himself once again homeless, living in
his car in the Woodman’s parking lot. Down to his last $50, he perused eBay and found a lot of
“I was thinking, well, I don’t know anything about fixing cellphones but I’m sure I can figure it
out, I have all the time in the world,” he said. “What I did was I fixed them up myself. I got a T6
torque screw[driver] and I tore them apart and I looked for what looked like it was broken and I
switched it out with another phone that had that working. And I made $600 off that first $50 lot.”
After several similar shipments, Jeremy told me, he received a call from a wireless provider in
the United Arab Emirates who told him they’d been buying up his used fixed phones just to test
his supply. The offered him a contract under which he’d buy American phones wholesale, then
sell them to an importer/exporter for a penny per phone over his cost. Soon, Ryan said, he was
selling millions of phones a month and doing business in U.A.E., Saudi Arabia and India. But he
sold off the company to pursue full-time activism, which landed him on the federal government’s
no-fly list. As a result of acting on what he believes in, his money is trapped; he has no way to
access his estimated millions of dollars in overseas accounts.
That’s the story of a man whose cause you might want to get behind; the sort of person who
was well-reasoned and soft-spoken in our interviews. The problem: A story that strange needs
independent evidence. And believe me, I asked. Time and time again the only proof Ryan
offered me for his story was his own word, or his friends’ words or documents from his own
computer. Between that and the grating public and online presence Ryan has cultivated, it’s the
second man you’d hope exists, but it’s the first man that you keep seeing.
Jeremy Ryan: He gives me a list of phones before I leave, and he says ‘Get me a million of any
of these phones. And then we’ll talk business going forward.’
Me: So did he front you money for this? You were just expected to be able to purchase a million
phones? Ryan: No, what we had worked out – between the legal departments and everything
Me: But you’re operating by yourself at this point?
Ryan: Yeah, I’m operating by myself. But it would go in a fashion where I would get the money
from them and then send that to the manufacturer. But I had to prove to them that I had contact
with the manufacturer.
Two minutes later
Ryan: I’d have to pay $20 million dollars if I sold a single iPhone in the U.S. There are penalties.
Three minutes later
Me [misspeaking]: So you had 20 million iPhone shipments, multiple times?
Ryan: Oh yeah, that would probably be about an average order. We had orders every month.
“The whole timeline kind of meshes,” Jeremy Ryan is telling me. “You can’t quote me exact
on anything timeline-wise because after 5 cardiac arrests I’ve lost a lot of my memory and the
ability to correlate times and whatnot. The last nine months even – I can’t correlate when this
happened or this happened. I do know events but time frames are a little hard.”
Why is Jeremy Ryan so hard to believe? He’s saying all this, and even though it’s a verifiable
medical fact – cardiac arrest does indeed cause memory loss – I’m looking at Jeremy Ryan,
and I’m thinking, Yeah, right.
Not everyone sees him this way. When I speak with Ben Manski, who made a serious
independent run at representing Wisconsin’s 77th district in the October 2010 elections, he tells
me that he sees no immediate reason to distrust Ryan.
“I think that the reality is that Madison is filled with dedicated, compassionate people. And he’s
certainly one of them,” Manski said.
Though he pointed out he doesn’t know Ryan well, Manski pointed out that he’s not exactly a
threatening figure, and questioned why Ryan has garnered disproportionate criticism for his
protesting techniques as compared to others trying to influence the political system.
“You know, his power is limited by his voice. The limits of [lobbyist] power seems to be defined
by their checkbooks … Anybody that thinks he poses a threat compared to Wall Street executives needs to think again,” he said.
Then again, Ryan is hardly doing himself any favors. He’s proved perfectly willing to tell his
story on every available platform, yet each of my requests for independent verification were met
with an explanations of secrecy agreements and contracts that shouldn’t be broken, and finally
supplemented only with essentially unverifiable documents provided by Ryan that he insisted I
not share. Ryan claims that even his close friends knew only he was working with cell phones,
that he revealed none of the details of his business to them at the time.
Maybe it’s jealousy: Here’s someone barely older than I am that’s already lived three lifetimes worth of interesting stories, who has overcome more hardship than I will probably ever
encounter, and who quite clearly acts on the courage of his convictions in nearly every situation
he’s faced with. Maybe my subconscious, and the subconscious of anyone doubting Ryan are
silently screaming: “You slacker! That could be you!”
But that doesn’t seem right. Ryan’s story is one I want to believe, it’s one I wish he could verify, and it’s one that’s damn inspirational – movie material, Slumdog Millionaire stuff – if it’s true.
But if the whisper of truth is there, it’s hard to hear over the megaphone of self-promotion and
exaggeration. So instead of believing, I simply don’t know.
Me: So those are most of the political questions I had, but I just – Over the past week I’ve been
trying to verify some of the stuff. And I think a lot of our views – I’m sympathetic to your story.
I’d love to be able to tell it. But I’m worried from a credibility standpoint for the Herald and for
myself about outside verification.
Ryan: And I’m trying. Most of the people I know are under strict contracts. And that’s the thing
with me, also. [Several minutes of discussions about ways he could confirm the story and
reasons that he can't]. Most people just – Most of the articles out there have said, I’m just
telling my story.