It’s Our House – Capitol Civil Disobedience Sleepover Echoes On
Post by Christie Taylor on 2/22/2011 11:20am
It’s like something out of an old movie. I approach the illuminated dome of the Wisconsin state Capitol in a flurry of wet, cold slush, lugging my bedding in a garbage bag. It’s Sunday night, late, and the world is quiet, except for a lone, eerie clanking, getting steadily closer. Eventually, I see him, a lone man circling the Capitol, hitting a cowbell – one of the iconic sounds of the one-week-and-counting of protests against Governor Scott Walker’s budget repair bill. He rings it once every second or two, a steady marcato beat, and greets me warmly as I pass.
At Sunday’s rally on the Capitol steps, firefighters who have been demonstrating in solidarity with state public employees announced they would spend Monday night on the statehouse floor, joining a tradition that continued for an eighth night last night. The Wisconsin Capitol sleepover began last Tuesday when opponents of the bill chose to camp out in the building overnight rather than give up on their chance to testify at a Joint Finance Committee hearing that stretched more than 17 hours. It’s become, to me, one of the most interesting markers of the determination of union protestors and those who support them.
Though a nonunionized, private-sector worker myself, I’m the daughter of two public workers, the friend of many more, and sympathize wholeheartedly with a tradition to which I owe every minimum wage I’ve ever earned, my 40-ish-hour workweek, and my weekend. I’ve been among the thousands of people voicing opposition, walking and yelling on the square as I can in solidarity, but, out of a sense of penance for staying in to do dishes on our sloppy Sunday, lugged a couple pillows, blankets, and a change of pants to join the sleepover-cum-occupation.
I enter, at 10 p.m., just in time to hear the last loud noises of the night, a unison chorus of “Solidarity Forever.” Though by day you can hear thousands sing this in unison, it feels special and intimate as a bedtime song sung by “mere” hundreds. Then, perhaps one of the most thrilling small details I’ve witnessed, the drum circle on the first floor decamps so the protestors can clean it. They have no mops. They have no brooms. Instead, they kneel with rags for a good 20 minutes at least, and though the marble floor never looked that dirty, their rags come away black with accumulated foot grime. I’m a little stunned at the sight. There they are, tenderly scrubbing the epicenter of what seems to be turning into a national showdown. A man says to me, “I wish Fox News would report on this.” (Any rumors of vandalism are, as far as I’ve seen, wholly false. The blue gaffing tape being used to hang signs is, by all accounts, safe for the historic marble.) I leave my possessions in a corner. I can’t quite explain why this feels safe, but it started with the man with the cowbell, greeting me as a compatriot, and the constant “brothers and sisters” rhetoric of the week’s speeches. Also, the building is filled with marshals, organized by the TAA and other groups, who patrol the building in blaze yellow vests, keeping order so the police don’t have to. This is no college party.
Several corridors are food stations, marked with signs, and the food, while heavy in potato chips and other convenience fares, includes also fresh fruit, and take-out containers labeled “Vegan, 9:30 p.m.” The food corridors have spots for donated bedding, toilet paper, and hygiene items like soap, toothpaste, and tampons.
The donations of Ian’s pizza are leaving their mark, too, in neat stacks of boxes and ad hoc signs. Screamin’ Cyn Cyn and the Pons singer Shane O’Neill has turned them into walls for a cozy cave he’s made under a table. “Bless this mess,” it proclaims. He’s even drawn a vase of flowers. Orange.
Signs all around announce the next day’s rallies, where protestors might be able to find a place to stay in the city if they’re from out of town, where to charge a phone or use the Internet, and reminders of where to testify.
The sign I will eventually sleep under declares “Our Principles”:
- The Capitol is our house! Treat it as our own and clean up!
- Non-violence: Stay away from debates! Don’t hurt others!
- No drugs or alcohol.
- Keep noise down past 1 a.m.
- HAVE FUN.
My friend Jude brings up Grapes of Wrath, the union/squatter community that seems to function like a utopia. “I thought that was just propaganda,” he says. Because what community could function so well, ad hoc, with no one clear leader?
This one, it seems.
I stop in to the TAA office and chat with the night’s head marshal, Don, who wears a diamond-shaped badge fashioned out of folded legal paper. I mention that I had been expecting more of a party atmosphere, given Wisconsin’s reputation for, um, enjoying alcohol. He says the overnighters know better than that. “They’re here because it’s F***ing important,” he says. Too important to screw up with smuggled-in spirits.
The “have fun” attitude is still definitely present. There are people on Facebook, there are people playing chess, there are people talking about how they eat sandwiches. There is no dearth of laughter.
But there’s a determined, wary undercurrent. The TAA headquarters on the fourth floor swarms with marshals checking in between shifts, graduate students recording data, and other organizational tasks. A woman walks the floor offering quick tips on nonviolent protest and tells us to write the phone number for the ACLU “on your body somewhere.” There are workshops on nonviolent resistance throughout the night. And everywhere, small knots of people talking about what is happening, and what will happen.
About 30 Wisconsin State Troopers and Capitol police watch the entrances, but they’re friendly and seemingly sympathetic. The only time there’s anything like a problem is around 11:30, when we learn the doors have been locked, earlier than expected, and some people who had planned to stay are left outside. The overnighters quickly mobilize to find coats and blankets for them, but 20 minutes later they’re let in anyway.
(On my second night, Monday, as I enter with bedding in hand, one police officer advises me to sleep in the North or East wing. "Unless you want to be woken up at 3:45 a.m., anyway," he says. I ask why. "We're moving people. That's all I'm allowed to tell you." Everyone else either knows already, or learns via megaphone around 11 p.m. and, grumbling, moves. The smaller space is worrisome. A rumor has started that "they" are trying to shut down the overnighters in order for the Legislature to continue its sessions unharassed by day. A reporter friend tells me to call him if anything happens in the night. Nothing does.)
A man who is on his first overnight says he worries that if not enough people were staying at night, the Legislature would find a way to shut the people out for good, prevent them from testifying or filling the rotunda with signs and chants as they have every single day since Valentine’s Day.
Bill Hinks, a union worker from Chicago, beginning his fourth night of the solidarity sleepover, says he’s not so much worried about that as maintaining a show of togetherness, up to and including the discomfort of a cold stone building that was never meant to act as a hotel. “We have to stick up for each other,” he says. “You can only keep pushing us so much.”
Many of the overnighters are young, perhaps students, but there are many who are older, representing a generation that remembers the 1960s. Ross Winklbauer, a United Steelworkers member from Sheboygan county who has driven the 2.5 hours each way for the last five days, is on his first sleepover of the protest. He says the sight of so many people, including the young ones, has been energizing.
“I’m old enough to remember a lot of protests,” he says. “And when I see them marching – I know there is a next generation. The one thing Walker has done, which he didn’t want to do, is solidify all the unions. “
And as for the sleepover? He, too, thinks the symbolism of it matters, critically so.
“I think it sends a strong message to Walker and the rest of the Republicans that we’re not going to take it lying down,” he says. “It shows ‘em we’re committed to the movement.”
In all, what I come away with is the feeling that this presence is, to be nerdy, kind of like that moment in The Lord of the Rings when Merry and Pippin light the signal fire that eventually brings much-needed assistance to the war against Sauron. Being here keeps the fire burning. If this is, as some have characterized the opposition to Walker’s rules, a struggle to retain American democracy, then the Capitol presence, however quiet at night, is a vigil-slash-guard duty that, if nothing else, reminds lawmakers that there should be nothing remote or distant about the relationship between the people and their government.
At nearly 1 a.m. it’s still noisy, even with earplugs in, and I wonder if I will actually sleep. I’ve brought a book, but I can’t concentrate. The spot we’ve staked out, in the northwest corner of the second floor, has an unobstructed view of the mural of Justice at the base of the dome. The lights are still fully on, will stay on all night, and I lie on my back looking up at Justice’s measured and measuring stare.
I drift to sleep with the muffled sounds of singing filtering through my earplugs. It is, undeniably, the warmest cold floor I’ve slept on.
I wake to my alarm at 6 a.m., disoriented, cold, and without a sense that I’ve really slept. It’s finally quiet. Just a few footsteps, and the strange hum of hundreds of people breathing in an echo chamber. According to another early-riser, it won’t start to get loud – meaning chanting, drumming, and other sundry free speech – until about 8. “The drum circle is still asleep,” he says.
I brush my teeth, loaning toothpaste to another bleary-eyed woman, change my clothes, and slog back out into the still-dark world, nodding good morning and shy “thank you” to the police officers I pass. As I walk down the sidewalk, I turn back to look at the building. The view is much the same as the night before, white and glowing, but I feel a tenderness and comfort at the sight that has been building for the past week, and which, after a night of odd, echoing sleep, is all the more solid and sure. It has nothing to do with the passing politics of the day. It has everything to do with a renewed faith in the capability of human beings to make amazing things happen.
Frankly, I think everyone, no matter how they feel about this issue, should spend a night in the seat of so much power. Certainly, I returned Monday night. But more importantly, I will never look at the State Capitol the same way again. Where once it was alien, intimidating, and a place where I tended to find myself standing too long in uncomfortable shoes, it’s now home. My house. Our house. And we’re all in this together.
Christie Taylor (@ctaylsaurus) covers science, environment, and, depending on the season, state politics for dane101. She verbs a lot of nouns, including rollerskates, radio, and Kurt Vonnegut. A Madison native, she's not sure she'll ever quite manage to leave Wisconsin, and that's just fine by her. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.