Courage (A Report from the Walker Protests)

By Carolyn May
Photographs by James Rhem

For the first time in my life, I would take action.

I was against this “Budget Repair Bill” of Governor Scott Walker’s.  The bill with NO compromise was more than this retired teacher could take. I would go to the rally at the Capitol on February 15, 2011.

This wasn’t an easy decision for me.  My background taught me to keep quiet during conflict, not to voice my opinions.  Growing up, my family didn’t discuss what was going on in the world outside of our little town.  As a teacher and a minister’s wife in the 1960s, I was expected to support my husband and the school board and to do my job—not make waves, and certainly not offend anyone.

Besides, weren’t protest rallies where radical people were?  Weren’t they dangerous events full of people who yelled, pushed, and even became violent and destructive?

Yet this was a time I felt the dictatorial attitude of the governor and the unfair targeting of the poor and middle class, with no effect on the wealthy, was not right.  I was only one person, but I could be there.

When I walked to the Capitol Square, I saw hundreds of people:  young families including babies in strollers, seniors like me, college-aged and middle-aged folks.  It was a little like a summer farmer’s market, where people filled the sidewalk and walked together around the Square, chanting:

“Tell me what democracy looks like.”
“This is what democracy looks like.”

I breathed a sigh of relief.  This wouldn’t be so tough.

I decided to check out the inside of the Capitol building, so I walked in the nearest door.  There I heard drumming and more chanting.

“Kill—the—bill!
Kill—the—bill!”

echoed through the halls of the rotunda.  I peeked over shoulders and looked up.  On every level of our beautiful Capitol I saw people respectfully (but loudly!) participating.  I could see posters…not a lot but some…taped on the upper railings in support of the protest and against the bill and the governor.  I walked around, an anonymous bystander, really.  Nothing about me revealed how I felt about the issues.  How I felt at that moment was:  filled with pride and excitement.

There were rallies every week and weekend for the next several weeks, and I was there.  On February 26, in a steady snowstorm, I was part of a group from my church walking with other religious groups.  By this time I carried a sign and proudly wore pins on my coat, joining in the chant:

“Union busting
Is disgusting!”

I was visibly part of the movement now.

To my complete surprise, “my” Madison public schools were closed for four days because so many teachers and staff were downtown on the Square.  Not just teachers, but nurses, firefighters, police officers, students and others expressed the opinion that they felt like suddenly they were “the enemy,” instead of the backbone of the state.

A prank phone call was made to the governor, with an impostor pretending to be of the Koch  (pronounced “COKE”) brothers, wealthy supporters of Governor Walker.  In the course of that call, it was revealed that Gov. Walker had considered sending “his people” into the crowds to disrupt them.  I wondered what kind of governor would even consider that, with all the people, including many children, there.  This phone call was publicized and criticized, with a new chant rising up from the crowds:

“RE—call
WALK—er!”

We were in the news all over the country.  Some of the publicity was untrue–big shock!!  For example, one of the reports showed an unruly, rowdy crowd.  However, the palm trees in the background betrayed the fact that this really wasn’t snowy Madison they were showing.  Another untruth was that all those signs taped on the marble walls of the Capitol would cost millions to restore.  Later quotes were much different, ending up in the hundreds of dollars in their estimates.  Time after time I wanted to cry out, “No, it’s not that way at all!!!  Don’t make this into something it’s not!!”

By the beginning of March, I wondered how this would ever be solved.  Both sides seemed to be at an impasse.  Then something happened to change the climate.

March 3 police found rifle ammunition outside the Capitol.  “Has this been planted by the other side?” I worried.  This discovery resulted in huge changes in security for the Capitol building.  Now people who wished to enter could only get in one door instead of eight, were required to be frisked and go through a metal detector, and could only enter when others came out.  Long lines formed in the cold, chanting:

“Whose house?”
“Our house!”

On March 12 the largest rally thus far was held, with between 100,000 and 180,000 participating.  I could barely move.  This time there would be a very unusual parade of farmers on tractors.

Since my dad had been a farmer, I was filled with pride seeing these folks make such a contribution of time and effort.  Just the logistics of being in the barn milking cows at 5 am, then getting to Madison with a tractor on a trailer, unloading it at the parking lot at the Alliant Center, driving it up John Nolen Drove to the Capitol, circling the Square (being careful not to run over any of the thousands in the street) and then retracing all that to return home to milk cows again that evening, was mind-boggling to me.  Talk about support!!

Youtube video uploaded by DJAlanGreenspan on Mar 13, 2011

As I write this essay on March 27, I am sure this story is still a work in progress.  I was a very miniscule part of it all, but still I felt so-o-o self-righteous and courageous.  Everywhere I went, I could be part of the talk about the unbelievable unfolding of events,  the huge crowds protesting peacefully, and the clever, original signs.  Word was that many of those signs were saved by the State Historical Society and that some might even go to the Smithsonian as historic signs of the times (no pun intended!).

I was proud until one morning in my Yoga Class.

A woman stood listening to groups chatting about the signs and rallies, and their negative feelings about the governor.  Then she spoke up, saying, “I will drop out of this class if I hear any more about it.  I don’t agree with any of it, and this is not the place to talk about it.”

She showed me what real courage is:  speaking up as a lone voice in a crowd of the opposition, and I realized this, too, is what democracy looks like.

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About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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2 Responses to Courage (A Report from the Walker Protests)

  1. Bobbie says:

    Excellent insight in to the events in Wisconsin. Thanks to the courage of the writer and thousands more like her, I believe we are going to see real change in this country.

  2. Beautifully described how it really was. Even the last paragraph. It will take me a few more days/weeks to “go there”. I’m pretty devastated by the election, as are so many who really were there. You cannot have been there and not been changed forever.

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