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Letters From Wisconsin

Photograph Edward Haydin

One More Day in Madison

For two weeks, Wisconsin state employees have occupied the capitol. Our man in Madison reports from inside the rotunda, where the mood swings from obligated to giddy.

It’s another winter’s morning in Madison, Wis., where the weather is both incredibly bright and incredibly bleak—depending on your politics.

The streets and sidewalks are daubed with a fresh, brilliant powder. Eastward there is a vague splotch in the white sky, like a spot of paint that hasn’t dried: presumably that is the sun.

At the south entrance of the capitol building this Saturday morning, lying in a heap of blankets outside the doors, is Jon Stone, a 20-year-old art student from Beloit College. He’s been here all night, waiting for the doors to open.

Inside, hundreds of protesters are camped out, leaning on members of the state Senate to reject a budget bill that would sharply curtail unionized state employees’ collective bargaining rights. They have already resigned themselves to the idea that they will take on more of their health and pension costs; what they’re fighting for now is to keep their ability to negotiate jointly, the fist of their union.

So far in his protest Stone has slept inside where it’s warm, bundled up on the floor of the rotunda with hundreds of other protesters. “Sometimes it’s tough to find a spot,” he tells me, but adds that he enjoys the camaraderie. “An ashram of cooperation,” he calls it, citing the tai chi classes offered by volunteers and the respectful, library level of quiet after 11 p.m.

Friday evening, however, the state government unexpectedly locked the capitol doors—allowing the people already inside to stay, but no new people to come in. This happened around nine, without any posted notice. It’s part of a new strategy, meant to draw a gradual end to the nearly two weeks that protesters have occupied the building. Stone had arrived at 9:06 p.m.

He tells me he’s come in part to support his father, a public servant at the Consumer Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., but more importantly because he wants to preserve people’s ability to form unions and “not get fucked” by their employers.

“I will not be moved,” reads his markered sign. Stone’s eyes, the only parts of his body not covered by multiple blankets, stare determinedly into the distance.

I ask him if he thinks it’s worth it—sleeping outside in seven-degree weather, all night.

“I’m not cold,” he shrugs, and looks away.


* * *

Later in the morning, around ten, Sheryl Beglinger arrives at the Capitol with her husband and grown daughter. She’s 61, a retired public school teacher, with pink mittens and a gray knit cap with little pom-poms hanging on the strings. She’s come from a town just outside of Superior, Wis.—a nearly six-hour drive—to work as one of the orange-vested volunteer “marshals” tasked with keeping the peace.

Despite reports that the day’s demonstration might yield over 100,000 people—the largest crowd yet—Beglinger is confident that the National Guard won’t need to be summoned. “That’s why I’m here,” she says, laughing, as she flails her arms at the crowds, directing them into the opened Capitol entrance. “Welcome to our home!” she tells them, laughing some more.

When I ask her how late she thinks today’s protest will go, she glances sourly at the sky. “Depends on the weather,” she decides.

At 11:32, it starts to snow.


* * *

By 1 p.m., the crowd has swelled to a number well beyond that of last Saturday, which was the biggest gathering so far, estimated at 70,000. More than a few people have even brought their dogs—one of them a grizzled Labrador wearing a vest that says “Union Dog.”

But the mood this Saturday is strikingly different from the optimism of the past two weeks. Early Friday, the budget bill passed in the Republican-led Assembly, and while the state’s Democratic senators remain truant, keeping the Republican-controlled Senate from reaching the quorum necessary for a vote, any chance of a compromise is feeling increasingly remote. Yet the protesters here seem oddly relieved, as if a pressure to perform has been lifted. In its place is a kind of giddy, oh-screw-it-all abandon, leaving them prone to dancing and laughter. A new sign is now common across the crowd: “ONE MORE DAY.”

Nowhere is there the excitement of last Friday, when I watched drums and bagpipes lead a procession of firefighters and reduce a woman beside me to tears.Still, not everyone feels that way. Lowell Carlon, who’s worked for 30 years as a steelworker in Virginia, Minn., says he’ll be here next weekend, too, no matter what happens. “This is just the beginning of an attack on unions across the country,” he tells me. “We have to make a stand.”

Behind him, on the corner of State Street, employees of Ian’s Pizza pass out free slices to anyone willing to wait in line. They’ve been donated from people all around the world. It takes about 20 minutes, but I’m finally handed a steamy triangle topped with macaroni and cheese.

A woman in a red Badgers sweatshirt watches me give the slice an odd look.

“Wisconsin,” she explains, patting me on the shoulder.


* * *

Weirdly, there are also lines snaking around outside the Capitol building—really long ones. For the first time since the protests began, the sheriff’s department is only letting in a certain number of people at a time. Around five in the evening, a middle-aged man in a Packers cap storms out of the building and announces his frustration to the crowd. “We never used to have a line,” he moans. “It’s sapping all the energy in there. It’s like you want to fold your hands.”

“It’s cold out here,” he adds to his list of complaints. “I’m thinking about going home!”

When I get inside, the man’s grievances are quickly confirmed. Nowhere is there the excitement of last Friday, when I watched drums and bagpipes lead a procession of firefighters into the rotunda and reduce a woman beside me to tears. People are still courteous and friendly to each other, but they also look a little weary and obligated, as though on a journey that’s lasted far too long.

Instead of a drum circle, with everyone chanting and whistling and stomping, there is only a woman speaking into a microphone to a thin ring of onlookers. This is Rudy Fox, from Superior, Wis., a victim of stage-four colon cancer. If the emergency budget bill passes, she says, she will lose her health-care coverage and be denied chemotherapy. “If that happens, I’m writing on my gravestone: ‘Governor Scott Walker murdered me,’” she tells the crowd.

The speech is powerful and moving but also almost unmanageably depressing. Afterward, she leads the crowd in singing the old union song “Solidarity Forever,” though her voice is egregiously off-key and the other voices aren’t numerous or strong enough to compensate for it. It’s a sad, awkward moment for anyone who’s still here.


* * *

Around eight in the evening, I wander back to the Capitol building to see if maybe the mood has changed again. Outside the doors is a cluster of people with sleeping bags on their backs, shaking their heads at one another. Tonight, once again, the state government has decided to lock the doors early without telling anyone—at 6 p.m., apparently.

Luke Bassuener, a 31-year-old art teacher, spent the last nine nights sleeping in the rotunda. A large bag of his belongings is still inside. “At least I’m not worried about anyone stealing it,” he laughs.Luke Bassuener, a 31-year-old art teacher living here in Madison, is one of the many who’s been locked out. He’s spent the last nine nights sleeping in the rotunda, and a large bag of his belongings is still inside. “At least I’m not worried about anyone stealing it,” he laughs. “Safer than in a police station in there.”

The state government has plans to fully evacuate the building on Sunday afternoon—bringing an end to the nearly two weeks of constant protests. “But the cops are on our side,” Bassuener tells me, “so we’ll see how that’s gonna play out.” (As of Monday morning, protesters are still there—eds.)

We stand there for a long time in the cold, waiting for someone to come out. Bassuener admits that the emergency budget bill is almost certain to pass in the Senate eventually, and that a recall of the governor, while worth trying for, has a slim chance of success. But he hopes that some kind of activist organization can come out of these protests. “For the first time in 30 years, unions are popular again,” he adds. “That’s amazing, just on its own.”

Suddenly the doors open, and out steps a grinning woman in her mid-twenties. “It’s awesome in there,” she says. “People are dancing.”

Bassuener leaps toward the door as it swings, hoping to sneak inside. But he’s too late. It’s shut tight.


TMN editor Matt Ray Robison is a fellow at the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program. He lives in Ann Arbor. More by Matt Ray Robison