Outside the Capitol, thousands have gathered, and despite Fox News’ best attempts to spin it otherwise, the protests have been peaceful. With 70,000 people in attendance at an impromptu rally, there were no arrests and no major incidents of any kind. Union workers, teaching assistants, public school teachers, students of all ages and many others descended on the Capitol to protest the attempts by Gov. Scott Walker to strip the collective bargaining rights of public employees.
These protests have been characterized in a number of ways over the past week. I have heard some weird things, like Glenn Beck saying protesters are “trying to create chaos on the back of the worker.” It’s not Beck saying inane things that surprises me – that’s standard operating procedure. What surprises me has been this characterization of the protesters as Union “thugs,” angry dissidents with nothing better to do during the week than skip work and wreak havoc on our political system. That is an outrageous characterization, to say the least.
Those of us lucky enough to be around the protests have seen the best of the people of Wisconsin. I’ve seen school buses full of grade-schoolers defending their teachers, I’ve seen firefighters defending unions who weren’t quite GOP enough to avoid being busted by this bill and I have seen thousands of people who don’t work for the public sector at all. What I have seen outside the Capitol has been the epitome of a rational, reasonable, American response to legislation the people disagree with. At no point have the protests been unruly or the atmosphere hostile. But inside the Capitol, the Republican Party has been unable to meet the same level of decorum and decency.
Inside the Capitol, a political majority has decided that it no longer needs to follow the rules or entertain a legitimate level of responsible debate. The Republican Party decided Friday to convene the Assembly early and attempt to push through an illegal vote barring any further amendments to the budget repair bill.
The Democrats had to literally run into the room to stop the proceedings and minority leader Peter Barca was forced to yell repeatedly until someone would turn on his microphone. This forced Barca to question whether the Speaker was deaf. When he was finally recognized, Mr. Barca, a man who has been deeply involved in this state and this nation’s politics for the past twenty-five years, lambasted the Republicans for actions he called “unbelievable, unprecedented [and] un-American, not in keeping with the values of this state.”
Also chiming in was Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, who asked of the illegal vote attempt, “Why would that happen”? and then replied to his own rhetorical question, “That’s right, its consistent with how everything else has been handled.”
He went on to explain he had found out about the bill the previous week through a radio ad. Before he could explain why it is ridiculous to expect a legislative body to vote on a 144-page bill three days after it had been introduced, without discussing amendments, the speaker cut him off to chastise the gallery to withhold any sign of agreeing with either side. This extreme show of support was the gallery mimicking clapping as Hintz spoke.
This display had been allowed during the entire morning session, and its exclusion was the final step in silencing the public, as the speaker had refused to hear from the public earlier in the day.
Other democratic representatives held forth and rejected not only the illegality of that session but the overall refutation of the people’s right to democracy.
As Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, put it, “First, you want to take away people’s democracy in the work place, then you take away people’s democracy and their right to speak at a hearing on a bill, then you take away the minority’s ability to dissent and have a voice.”
A lasting image for me will be Rep. Kelda Helen Roys, D-Madison, choking back tears as she implored the Republicans to “do the wrong thing, but please … do it the right way.”
Representatives hearing about bills from radio ads, rushed votes and undemocratic tactics – that’s what this majority has given us. Trying to pass a 144-page bill in a week – no wonder every day leaks another fine print portion of the bill meant to turn Wisconsin into an oligarchy.
Behind closed doors, the majority has decided collective bargaining rights aren’t enough: They also aim to weaken the Democratic base with Union-busting fine print. Not merely content with attacking the middle class, this bill will also reward the Koch brothers with state-owned energy assets at fire sale prices. But hey, you have to reward the people who put you there before you worry about the people you serve.
Who knows what blatant power grab will emerge from a quiet corner of the bill tomorrow. Regardless, one thing is clear: If you’re looking for the thugs, you’ll have to squeeze through the peaceful people of Wisconsin to get to them.
John Waters (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a junior majoring in journalism.