Monday, February 28, 2011

Talking with the people: I interview protesters at the Capitol

“He’s not welcome here. He’s in the back-pocket of Koch Industries, he’s in the back-pocket of greed and money.”

So says Doug from Madison, a protester I spoke with on the Capitol square earlier this week, who sees Gov. Scott Walker as leading our state in the wrong direction.

“I’ve actually been protesting Scott Walker since January 3rd,” Doug adds. “I’d have protested him longer if he had gotten here earlier. I’ve just missed a day or two of protesting [these past two weeks] because I got sick.”

We’ve heard from a variety of people -- celebrities, state and local officials, political pundits -- on what these protests mean and the impact of Scott Walker’s budget repair bill on our state’s public employees. But if anything, these protests aren’t about those people. They’re about the common people, individuals who have come in droves of tens of thousands in order to protest a blatantly destructive bill.

I wanted to get their perspective, to show the world that these ordinary Wisconsin citizens really do care about the issues attached to this bill.

People like Pat from Madison. “There are many things stuck into this bill that are reprehensible,” she said. “It’s not just the collective bargaining. The potential cuts to Medicaid, the busting of the home-care workers union -- come on! And of course, selling off our power plants to, probably the Koch brothers now that it’s all come out. I mean, there’s just no acceptable parts to that bill.”

Others agreed. “This is a union state. We like unions,” said Lonnie, another protester from Madison. “The ability to negotiate is here, you know?”

Lonnie also felt that the leadership exhibited by Scott Walker was lacking. “This governor is from another planet,” he said. “He should just step aside and let the state get on with its business. He’s sold it out. He should just, in a peaceful manner, step aside. But if we have to go through the whole thing, strikes, a recall -- so be it.”

And that’s the sentiment felt by most of the protesters. A sense of betrayal was present even before the prank phone call heard ’round the world -- but after a blogger pretending to be a Koch brother infiltrated the phone lines of Gov. Walker for more than twenty minutes, with Walker spilling the beans about having considered placing “troublemakers” in the crowds of the protesters, it seemed that Walker no longer cared about the people of this state -- his only concern seemed to be that of the Koch brothers or other wealthy donors.

Some were frazzled by the apparent Republican planning behind this bill. Holly from Wisconsin Rapids was hesitant to express her attitudes, perhaps fearful that her words would go against the common-sense attitude of most Wisconsin citizens. “I feel like there’s a conspiracy -- and I hate to use that word because everyone thinks you’re a nut,” she said. “But I feel like my governor is plotting with other [Republican state governors] to overthrow its citizens...I fear people who are hard to communicate with.”

The feeling of anger over Scott Walker’s refusal to compromise was felt by almost everyone I spoke to. People like Larry and Nancy, a middle-aged couple from Mequon (a mixed liberal-conservative area), who were convinced that Walker was a stubborn governor. “He’s obviously not a quality leader,” Larry said. “He doesn’t know how to listen to the people -- if he knew how to listen to the people he’d obviously be out here, he wouldn’t be saying this doesn’t bother him. I don’t know if he’d notice if his arm fell off him, even.”

Nancy added, “When did compromise become a dirty word? If we want to get along in families, we learn how to compromise. If we want to get along as states, we learn how to compromise. If we want to get along as countries, we learn how to compromise. You can’t go through life without compromise.”

Many protesters were convinced that there was no point in asking for compromise, that Scott Walker would never listen to anyone who wasn’t a billionaire. Kleo, a teacher who lives in Fitchburg, was especially adamant about that point.

“I don’t think you can reason with the man,” she said. “The only people who can get in to talk to him are the Koch brothers. If a man he thinks is a Koch brother can get twenty minutes with him, why can’t he compromise and talk to union leaders.”

Donna, also from Fitchburg, felt that Walker would go further than he already has. “Who is he to take rights away? I mean, the next thing is the Bill of Rights he’ll try to take away.”

Kleo went on. “Scott Walker is a union-buster. He has been governor of this state for one and a half months, and he is succeeding at totally wrecking it. He has no interest in compromise, he is -- he is NOT the governor of the Wisconsin people. He is the governor of the Republican Party and big money. And that’s all he is.”


What did I get from all of this? The people who are driving these protests -- these Wisconsin people, from all corners of the state -- are fed up. They cannot understand why their governor is so stubborn, has led his state in this direction.

After all, he never campaigned on ending collective bargaining rights. He never campaigned on privatizing state-run facilities with no-bid contracts. And he certainly led many Wisconsinites to believe he’d work with, not against, the people’s interests at heart.

Instead, he’s ignored hundreds of thousands of voices. He’s disregarded the lives of state workers in favor of tax incentives for corporations. As a result, his poll numbers have plunged, with more than half the state disapproving of his job performance.

But actions speak louder than words -- and the footsteps and chanting of hundreds of thousands of protesters are proof positive of the changing tide of Wisconsin politics. The power of the people, the collective voices of those in solidarity with one another, cannot be silenced. That is what drove most of the people I spoke with -- the belief that what they were doing truly mattered, if not short-term than long-term.

“I think that people are going to feel strongly about it and they’re not going to let it happen,” Pat told me. Lonnie concurred: “I’ve been waiting my entire life for this!”

Those sentiments match the overall goal of the people of Wisconsin -- a spirit of optimism. Even in the face of adversity, where many concede this bill’s defeat is an uphill battle, the optimism of the power that the people hold brought hundreds of thousands to protest. If Scott Walker succeeds in anything, regardless of this bill’s outcome, it’s in revitalizing and galvanizing the progressive movement in our country, though in Wisconsin especially.

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