The Cheddar Revolution

What the protesters in Madison have in common with Tea Party activists.

MADISON, Wisc.—The drums are everywhere, and they are very loud. In the well of the state capitol, which has been occupied by pro-union protestors for a week, drummers beat rhythms in between the speeches delivered by whoever queues up for the megaphone. These speeches are occasionally drowned out by louder drums, played by younger and noisier protesters who are marching in circles.

The drummers need something else to do. A young man wearing a Green Bay Packers helmet takes the megaphone and hands them an assignment: Go bother the governor.

“I’m going to go up to Scott Walker’s office,” he says. “A lot of people have gone up to the hallway outside of Scott Walker’s office a few times, and they’ve brought their small kids, or perhaps they’re small themselves. If you have 1,000 people in a small hallway it’s not a safe environment. I want all the biggest, burliest union men to join me and I want us to be the front flank of people who march up to his office.”

He mostly gets his wish. Hundreds of protesters surge slowly toward the room where Walker is addressing the media about his union-crimping “budget repair bill,” the legislation that started this mess. They were supposed to start at a bust of legendary progressive Republican Senator Robert LaFollette—there are now flowers and a sign reading “What would Bob do?” on the bust—but the crowd gets much closer to the room than anyone expected it to. The drums come out. One is a massive leather drum, like a prop from some docudrama about Genghis Khan. One drummer beats a red bucket so hard that the wooden spoon he was using splits in two. He shrugs and hits the bucket with the bigger half of the ex-spoon.

There are louder noises than the ones coming from the drums. Organizers are leading chants of “We are Wisconsin” and “Tell the truth,” which sound louder as the space gets more crowded. Every once in a while they hush the crowd—this is done by asking and by getting members of the crowd to make peace signs with their hands—and order a new, louder action. They tell people to stomp their feet and shake the floors. “Do it until you can’t stand up!” They do it, joined by the blowing of a green vuvuzela, stamped with a sticker from the Madison Teachers Association.

No one is questioned, much less arrested. In Madison, the protesters are allowed to do almost anything. The police are watchful and bemused; during the foot-stomping, for example, Sgt. Brian Aubrey, who has been here for four days with capitol police, holds up his iPhone and takes a short video, then goes back to watching the crowd.

This occupation of the capitol is totally legal. During the legislative session, anyone can enter the building, from morning to midnight, without going through a security gate. In addition, police unions in Madison and Dane County oppose the governor’s bill and back the protest, even though they are exempted from the legislation’s ban on collective bargaining.

“Why do we deserve collective bargaining rights if no one else gets them?” asks Steve Heimsness, treasurer of the Madison Professional Police Officers Association, right after marching into the capitol with a “Cops for Labor” sign. “Also, if the collective bargaining rights are taken away from the other workers, it’ll happen to us. Guaranteed. I’m sure of it.”

So there’s no hurry to clean up the hundreds of small signs taped to the walls—several of them remind the crowd that “This is a PEACEFUL protest”—or the larger ones that have been taped there for days. They cover letters spelling out “We Are Wisconsin,” visible from most parts of the building, and the massive banner on the second floor asking Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to come to Madison because “we came to your rally.”

No one is telling the people who are sitting on sleeping bags, where they intend to spend the night, to go home. Sheryl Labash, who drove to Madison from Detroit on Thursday, has carved out a little section of a hallway on the second floor, where she reads the Socialist Worker online as she charges her BlackBerry. Not far away, another protester is taking the time to nap, happily earplugged against the din of hundreds of screaming comrades.

The drum lines and the out-of-state sleepovers are a relatively new part of the protest. They were probably inevitable. One reason why Madison is a tricky place to start a Republican crackdown on union power is that it’s home to a sprawling university and all manner of left-wing organizations, magnets for Midwest liberal activism. The Grassroots Leadership College, based here, is using the occasion to hold Nonviolent Demonstration Trainings around the clock, sharing tips like “Don’t make sudden moves around the police” and “Write the ACLU’s phone number on your body” (for when you’re arrested and your phone is taken). Ian’s Pizza, a restaurant close to the Capitol, has been delivering an endless supply of free food paid for by donors from around the world; the leftover boxes are immediately turned into makeshift protest signs. There’s free coffee and water, and on some days free bratwurst, all from local shops.

The hardiest protesters, the ones who have been on strike—a teacher’s strike ends tomorrow—say they feel they are doing something worthwhile. Alyson Pohlman, who works for the university, walks in and out of the capitol building with one of the 12 signs she’s made over seven days of protests. If the budget repair bill passes, she calculates that she’ll make 14 percent less than she used to. But this concerns her less than the cause she is supporting, which she describes as ensuring that “the voice of the people” remains strong enough to speak out against corporate America.

A lot of the protesters talk like this. They don’t want to lose bargaining rights, but they couch that worry in a broader, more existential fear: What if they’re losing their country? It is almost impossible not to hear echoes of Tea Party protesters. (There are some common slogans: I spotted one “Mad as Hell” and one “Can You Hear Us Now?” sign.) The Tea Party worries about George Soros and ACORN; the Cheddar Revolutionaries worry about libertarian billionaires Charles and David Koch, and an overall Republican strategy to “defund the left.” They cite New Yorker and New York Times reports to make this case, and they’re scared.

There are countless signs attacking the Kochs, or Walker as a “Koch tool,” or listing which products to boycott in order to hit the Kochs’ pocketbooks. And there are detailed charts explaining that if unions are neutered politically, the biggest campaign donors in America will be “right-wing.” Mark Jansen, who drove to the protests from Indiana, walks the capitol with a yellow umbrella that came free with some Eggo waffles, and is now festooned with anti-Koch, anti-Citizens United slogans.

“Walker’s a pink, naked purse dog for the Kochs!” he says.

Late in the evening, long after Walker’s presser has ended, the drummers are still in the capitol. Other protesters are settling in for sleep. The rumor of the moment is that the state will find a way to expel them from the building. This rumor has cropped up from time to time, and it survives because there is a readiness, if not willingness, to expect the worst.

“This is Normandy,” says Brian Austin, one of the protesting Madison police officers, heading home for the night. “If we lose this, everything changes.”

Click here to view a slide show on protest signs in Wisconsin.

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