What surprised me when I went back to Madison, Wis., this week is that there are still protestors circling the Capitol.
Right now should be a lull. It has been almost two months since Governor Walker signed his law to gut collective bargaining, and it will be six months before signatures can be legally gathered to recall him.
Based on my own experience, I expected things to have settled down. I was a graduate student in Madison during the last years of the Vietnam War. It was a time of long-term protests, but I and most of my friends didn’t participate.
Was I focused on school? Did I believe that anything I did would be ineffectual? Do I still think that way?
Today’s Madison is not complacent. I saw many signs in people’s windows and on their lawns and cars. People still talk often about Governor Walker and what comes next.
I visited the Capitol. Within seconds, I saw my first four protestors, followed by other small groups carrying signs. The signs were mostly hand-lettered, as before. Some protesters wore union T-shirts and buttons.
I approached a friendly-looking threesome about my age and asked how often they come and how long they march.
“I’m a rabid volunteer,” laughed the woman, “I try to come every day.” She and the man next to her usually march for five to six hours. Their companion, laid-off, doesn’t stay quite as long.
“We’re retired,” she said, “but we could do plenty of other things. We choose to come here.”
They drive 20 miles each way.
“After we’d been coming for a while, we started recognizing people. We decided to learn names.” Now the circling protestors greet each other by first name and share food and conversation. At noon some go into the capitol and sing.
This being Wisconsin, winter lingers. There has been frequent rain, even snow.
I asked several other people why they were still there.
One talked about her conviction and said, “The other side doesn’t understand how deeply motivated we are.” Another explained, “Our legislator said it’s good for us to stay out here. Keep the pressure on.” A third went off about being superior to Sarah Palin’s supporters who, she claimed, came because they were paid.
What I wanted to know was: Are these people incredibly passionate, or are they some kind of lunatic fringe?
My question was difficult to answer. One woman told me about a law in Michigan that was making her furious. I had never heard of the law (sorry, I can’t recall it now) and I don’t know if her information was credible. It sounded a bit like ranting.
Another volunteer had taken on an unglamorous but very rational assignment: data entry. She collects the names of people who support a gubernatorial recall but will need to be re-contacted during the 60-day window for gathering signatures that begins in November.
One woman in a bright green T-shirt circled alone banging a drum. Her words were memorable.
“When this whole thing started, I felt as if I’d been beaten up in an alley and left to die. It feels sinister to me. Especially the governor’s lack of compassion.”
She showed me how loud her drum could sound when she hit it hard. “We’re not going away. We may be peaceful, but we’re not wimpy.”
In our last moments together, she put her hand on her chest and said, “Heart to heart, soul to soul, we are all connected.”
I believe that — sort of — but you’ll never catch me saying it out loud.
Lastly, I met and talked to Joanne Juhnke, a part-time university librarian, who told me about her family and later sent me links to her blog posts, which were well-written.
From the earliest announcement of Walker’s plans, Juhnke focused on one less-heralded aspect of his legislation that severely affected her family: proposed new rules for Wisconsin Medicaid. As the parent of two daughters, one with autism, she is very concerned about health care.
She doesn’t march every day. She doesn’t march long hours. But she comes with her sign about Medicaid and tries to educate people.
She describes herself as deeply changed by recent events.
It began by accident the first week, she said. She had already focused on the Medicaid part of the problem and on the first day of overnights at the capitol — when thousands of people crowded into the rotunda — a friend said to her “Come, tell the crowd.”
Junhke climbed onto a barrel, took a bullhorn in her hand for the first time and spoke. She had never imagined herself doing such a thing. She belongs to the Menonnite Church, a religious community I think of as modest and unassuming, although they have a strong commitment to peace.
“I went from being a mild-mannered librarian,” she told me, “to being comfortable standing on a barrel speaking through a megaphone to a huge crowd.”
Events are happening in Wisconsin that may soon play out on a national level, where the attempt to end collective bargaining may re-empower and re-motivate people working to elect Democrats.
I am learning that events play out on a personal level, too, some of it bordering on irrational, some of it touching and profound.
Madison teaches me, even now, that if you care about the wider society, sometimes you should put in more time.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at email@example.com. Her column appears Sundays