Sunday, February 27, 2011

Solidarnost (Madison Musings)

Contorted sleeping bags, inflatable mattresses, the smell of sleep and bodies and a waking, stirring, marble, windowless building full of college students stretching and eating bowls of cereal: the Capitol felt inhabited, lived in, was. Drums beat strong at ten a.m., the pounding on of buckets that was the heartbeat at the center of the rotunda, is the heartbeat of this movement.

In front of every entrance and cordoned-off set of stairs, police officers stood and watched, the cops in their world and the protesters in theirs, officers standing sharply and protesters fluid and sprawling, crouching, stretching, eating, but with no animosity. I spent an hour just wandering, looking at signs and posters, post-it notes on carved marble, neoclassical paintings and the central dome always beating, sometimes faintly and then so strong my insides moved.

The women’s bathroom was inhabited too, and one sign read, “Thank you Capitol staff for keeping our home clean.” Another, taped to a bag of pads, said “Take as needed.” One woman breastfed; another passed toilet paper to her mother under a stall door. The only acts of vandalism in the building were on the plastic toilet paper roll, where the brand name SCOTT was amended in one stall to read “Impeach SCOTT Walker” and in another, “SCOTT is an asswipe.”

In the gallery of the Assembly Chamber, during the long hour before the session started, the woman behind me quietly outlined the traits of a sociopath and compared them to the governor. The hall below filled with a sea of clean-cut, well-fed white men in dark suits on one side and a diverse crowd of men and women in bright orange shirts - “We Support Working Families” - on the other. I create a false dichotomy, yet one that was visually striking from a distance like plumage to a birdwatcher.

Those of us in the almost-full gallery sat and waited, and after the roll call, the Minority Leader took the floor and his reprimand to the Republicans for rule violations the previous week turned to shouting, and the opposite wall of the cavernous room became a thin membrane that vibrated with the roar of the protestors on the other side, as if they were about to break through, as if they had.

Somewhere in the building, I assume, the man under discussion sat behind a large desk, not yet revealing strategy to an imposter millionaire, sticking to principles of his own that I could not fathom – trickle-down economics; the inalienable rights of the private sector. I felt only anger at the callous handling of dignified lives.

As did academics, community members, old and young hippies, Wisconsin Public Radio reporters, college student organizers, Jesse Jackson standing on a milk crate, firefighters marching in rotunda circles to drumming, tired police officers, fired-up octogenarians, Senator Tammy Baldwin, a determined youth with eerily Leninesque eyebrows, a scraggly Teamster – “Honey, here’s a sticker for your sign,” a curious dread-locked college student stopping by after class – “What union are you in?”, sheriffs – a lot of sheriffs in day-glo vests, a lot of firefighters from Beloit, a British preacher in a white suit, children in strollers – “We stop by every day for a half hour or so,” a man with a scrawled-on yellow umbrella, a bookish young woman gathering signatures and recovering from a migraine, polished television reporters, shaggy and watchful photographers, and throngs of calm teachers with angry signs – reasonable, measured people.

We were the first domino; we had to lean into that mean forefinger, because if we went down, everything could. So we stood and pushed back, as in a trust exercise with no trust. The people moved in and out of their building, and the violent thing never happened except for the violent thing that was happening.

February 23, 2011