Two Nights in Madison's Capitol: The Great Class War Sleepover

by Abe Sauer

Hundreds of protesters moved down the sidewalk and turned onto Doty Street, but I already knew where they were headed. I’d already been thrown out of 10 East Doty three hours earlier, for absolutely nothing more than asking how to get to the seventh floor. That’s where you find suite 703, home of Koch Companies Public Sector LLC.

Yesterday’s demonstration outside the Koch offices represents an evolution in the thinking behind the protests in Madison: a leap from the political to the private. Until now, Governor Scott Walker and other Republican representatives have been the sole target of the demonstrations. Sure, calls have come for a boycott of M&I Bank, identified as Walker’s largest donor, and Koch Industries products (Dixie cups), but those were not focused and organized. This puts the political and the private together, recognizing the problem as one with not just a body but a brain. Now it actually is a class war.

The center floor of the rotunda sends out a steady drum beat while worker after worker take a turn at the portable PA system. One guy talks about his wife’s tumor, and how, without benefits, she probably would have died. Another guy talks about being a union carpenter. They speak with passion, if not experience. There’s a lot of “you knows.”

Many have tried to help by sending food, and it shows. Right now, there is no shortage of things to eat. A neat tower of Ian’s Pizza boxes are parked against one wall. Some of the attendees could stand to spend a day protesting with no food; this is Wisconsin, after all. And not just Wisconsin, but Madison: a place that is doing nothing at this event to shake stereotypes. At the nurse station I spoke with an exceptionally friendly holistic nutritionist, who was sorting through donations or herbs and other unknown ointments.

Olive, a volunteer at the nurse station, said the worst injury she knows about so far was a man who got “something like trench foot” for walking around too long in wet socks. I asked Olive if they needed anything. “Vitamin D,” she said. “People have come by and asked for vitamin D and we don’t have any.”

By a column on the second level were a handful of Buddhists, knees contorted on the marble floor in a pose that made my surgery-scarred joints hurt just looking at it. There was also the “stitch-in,” thirty women and a few children sitting quietly sewing and chatting. One white-haired woman actually had an old wood loom wheel; the kids were fascinated.

A wing has been set up as a safe play area for children. There are signs: “No photography of children, please.” And: “No peanut products. (4 foot range).”

This is how my conversation went with the guy at the ad-hoc (and almost suspiciously neat) information booth:

Me: Hi.

Guy: Hi

Me: So, manning the booth, huh?

Guy: Personing.

Me: I’m sorry?

Guy: Personing the booth. Not manning.

A slim, smiling young man with a Dem donkey t-shirt passed through the halls handing out fresh strawberries. “Somebody sent a pallet of these,” he says.

The ongoing occupation of the Wisconsin capitol has two distinct shifts. This night shift, a skeleton crew that keeps the energy alive, cleans up after a day of huge rallies and generally maintains a vigil. It is unofficially organized by the Teacher Assistant Association, the organization that represents the thousand or so grad student employees of UW-Madison.

Room 300NE is not a “war room,” said TAA co-head Kevin Gibbons. “You know, there are some pacifists. So it’s the ‘situation room.’”

A grad student and teacher of environmental conservation from Tampa, FL, Gibbons is like a long-haired, more socially conscious and virile version of Facebook’s Eduardo Saverin as portrayed by actor Andrew Garfield. He says he kind of stumbled into the leadership role at the union. Before this, he mostly negotiated TA contracts. He explains highlights such as fighting for “lactation rooms,” “domestic partner benefits” and something Gibbons says is called the “no assholes clause,” officially known as the “guaranteed harassment free workplace” stipulation.

The TAA’s website Defend Wisconsin became more widely known when reports circulated that access to the website through the capitol’s free wi-fi had been blocked. This block turned out to be part of capitol policy, but, by then, the story had legs. Walker refuted it using the word “lie” three times.

From the third floor, the TAA organizes food deliveries and distribution to the protesters. It also operates a warden system; TAA members walk the floors in yellow safety vests, making sure people are behaving and keeping things clean. Another group collects garbage and tidies up. Still more TAA members flank a long table, laptops open, organizing volunteers via Facebook, updating Twitter, entering data from petition drives and rounding up people for the phone-bank. The TAA is almost perfect for the role it’s taken here. It’s young and energetic, but also smart and savvy. It is also highly mobile: few have the other responsibilities of many unions’ protesters, including children and a 9 to 5 job schedule.

Anyone who has ever been involved in a political campaign would say the TAA room feels exactly like a campaign operations room, not a conventional protest.

This campaign character is probably why the House leader, Senator Scott Fitzgerald, has declared that starting Saturday at 6 p.m., police will begin closing down parts of the capitol at night. Just how much is unclear, but office rooms, such as 300NE, have been mentioned. In his reasoning, Fitzgerald cites concern over “offices that were jammed full of staffers that were hosting protesters.”

I visited the TAA offices just before midnight on Wednesday, and again on Thursday, and found the only thing “jammed” anywhere was, well, jam. The very orderly food station (“Use hand sanitizer before touching food!”) was stocked with bagels, cream cheese and jam. As for Fitzgerald’s claim of “sleeping bags everywhere,” I saw no such thing. Sleeping, as far as any of the protesters are concerned, appeared limited to various areas on the floor in the capitol hallways. As the TAA works in shifts, many don’t sleep at the capitol at all.

Gibbons told me Fitzgerald’s was “a smart move for somebody who wants give us the squeeze.” But Gibbons said the TAA won’t stop. “We’ll set up shop somewhere else. Outside the Capitol if we have to, though we’re committed to staying here.” One challenge will be finding power sources for the many laptops that fuel much of the organization. Asked if the TAA will resist if the police show up to enforce the rule, Gibbons said no. “Our fight isn’t for the room. If they want to use these tactics, that’s the way it is. We’re pretty mobile.”

So if the TAA and its night shift are being portrayed as a laughable bunch of spoiled college twerps unaware of “the real world,” at least the day shift is a distinctly different crowd. Around noon, a platoon of Wisconsin firefighters gathered outside the Capitol. Walking meaningfully to the drone of bagpipes, the firefighters circled the building again and again. Thirty minutes in, the group slithered into the dome itself. The already packed building goes completely bonkers.

Two Dodge County sheriffs’ deputies charged with watching the crowd pull out their cameras and capture the fireman scene for themselves.

It’s no surprise the involvement of the firefighters has been downplayed and ignored by the Republican crowd. That the firefighters have come out against the bill even though their own collective bargaining rights are protected by exemption is a shocker to a group that wraps itself in American flags and roundly thought this jingoistic patriotism guaranteed it a rhetorical claim to the profession in the wake of 9/11. After a near-decade of wearing a FDNY hat as a statement of political belief, what’s a GOP true believer to do?

It should also worry the GOP that a large number of people protesting, especially a lot of the men, look exactly like the tea party crowd. I’ve been to a few tea party events over the last couple years and these guys are tea partiers. I spoke with one Vietnam veteran named Ed, who said he may have considered himself a tea partier a year ago — but not anymore.

Senator Chris Larson, still on the lam, opened his capitol office to demonstrators. The senator’s aide Justin Sargent smiled from behind the thick desk: “Come on in. How are you?” A protester sat back in Larson’s actual office, watching the news. I asked where Larson was. “Not on the senate floor,” said Sargent. I left, walking past a sheriff’s deputy turning a clumsy unfolded map around and around in an attempt to help a scraggly-bearded wheelchair-bound man find his way.

* * *

The misinformation campaign run by the right against the protests in really quite stunning.

Led locally by WIBA 1310 AM radio host Vicki Mckenna, the anti-protester machine taunts the group at the capitol as both stinky, spineless and laughable flower-power hippies — and, at the same time, “violent” union “goons” and “thugs” who are “not afraid to get arrested.” Like the repeated reference to “union members” versus “taxpayers,” these criticisms represent a special sort of ability to hold two completely divergent and equally slanderous characterizations of a single group without recognizing the logical impossibility.

But the machine doesn’t stop at mischaracterizing the participants: it is also flatly lying about them. And not just small lies such as McKenna’s manufactured claim about liberal calls to assassinate the governor. On Wednesday, Fox News reported on a Gallup Poll that found 61 percent of Americans oppose removing the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions. But Fox reported the exact opposite of the poll results, stating that 61 percent of Americans favor removing the collective bargaining rights. Just think about the size of the balls, and the amount of disrespect for an audience’s intelligence, needed to look directly into the camera and report a lie like that. That’s like reporting that Japan won World War II, or that Walker didn’t pass $200 million in tax cuts for the rich at the same time as demanding $137 million from the middle class. In the fight over unions and the budget, this outright willingness to lie about the truth is more malicious than, say, the continued insistence that union pension contributions are somehow paid for by the state and are not part of a worker’s full compensation, or, say, Rachel Maddow’s prejudice blurring her ability to read the small print. (A really simple FAQ on the budget, the shortfall, the tax cuts and the reality can be found at the Journal Sentinel.)

The impact of the prank phone call cannot overstated. Even though Walker may not have explicitly said anything unlawful, the incident has rankled many. By the day after the call, countless signs referenced the incident: “Governor! The Easter Bunny is on line 2!”

The other thing the call accomplished was to redirect the anger of the protesters. While the Koch name was certainly on display before Wednesday, by yesterday it was a primary focus of demonstrators — so much so that the protest was organized to march one block down from the Capitol to the building housing Koch’s lobbying offices.

I had paid 10 E. Doty Street a couple visits. Around 11:30 a.m., I strolled through the inert lobby to the building directory. Numerous political lobbyists and law firms and judges are listed on the directory, but not Koch, and not “regional manager” Jeff Shoepke.

10 Doty Street is also the offices of Democrat hero Rep. Tammy Baldwin. In fact, just before noon I ran into Baldwin in the lobby on her way back from the Capitol. I asked her about the Koch offices and she said she was aware and that she’d heard a rumor that “their name was taken off the door or something.”

But the name wasn’t just taken off the door. I went back to visit #703 around 1 p.m. to see if somebody would talk to me about the planned protest — and discovered that the elevator has been disabled from even reaching the seventh floor. I got off on the 8th instead. The receptionist there asked me what I was looking for. When I told her I was wondering how to get to the seventh floor, her smile immediately turned into a frown. “You can’t be here,” she said and began dialing a number, a little flustered.

Security was called and I found myself on the sidewalk, next to three middle-age guys holding a “Honk against the Kochs” sign. I told them they probably don’t want to try and go in there. “No kidding,” one said.

Ten minuets later a large sign was put up in the lobby citing Sec. 23.07(2) Madison general ordinance: No Trespassing.

One detail that few have mentioned about the prank call is the extent of the out-of-state influence now in play in the state. David Koch is not a voting resident of Wisconsin. Walker claims the support of Wisconsin taxpayers in the battle against the unions. But David Koch pays no taxes in Wisconsin. The Kochs have industrial interests in Wisconsin (Georgia Pacific, C. Reiss Coal), but only tangentially through Koch Industries. David Koch holds no executive position at any company operating in Wisconsin.

If the prank call revealed that the Kochs have tremendous access to a governor of a state they don’t live in, just how much access may soon become clear. If Walker is as dim a bulb as recent events have revealed him to be, the FOIA request filed yesterday by One Wisconsin Now for all communications and meetings between Walker and Koch lobbyists may prove devastating. The Kochs’ answer? “We have no choice but to continue to fight.

* * *

At 1 a.m. Friday, after nearly 60 hours of debate, the Assembly rushed a vote on the budget bill. In a process that lasted only about 60 seconds, the bill passed 51 to 17. Notably, four Republicans, Reps. Dean Kaufert, Travis Tranel, Lee Nerison, and Richard Spanbauer voted against it. The vote happened so fast that over two dozen representatives did not have the chance to participate, including a few Republicans. Despite the hour, the assembly left the floor to thunderous chants of “Shame” from the galley.

The bill now moves to the Senate, where a quorum is being denied by 14 Democratic senators now in Illinois.

But as senators force the debate to drag out longer, more and more time is allotted for the actual reading of the bill. After the union-busting measures, and the power grab over Medicaid, and the no-bid power plant sales provision, it’s now been found, on page 125, what amounts to an allowance for the governor to raid the state’s $28-million health insurance/pharmacy fund. It’s a measure Walker wanted rammed through just days after introducing the labyrinth bill — a measure which might not even be constitutional.

Fewer than three years after a Wall Street cartel treated the economy as a psychopathic teenager with a handful of fireworks would treat a cat, the national discussion for blame over our financial woes is focused on teachers, nurses, and daycare workers. After the leaders of private “industry” tore the economy a new one, the leaders of private industry actually have the stones to make teachers take the fall — and to make them the guilty party.

The following sentence, for decades a punchline, is now in fact the fundamental fiscal policy of today’s GOP: “Teachers are overpaid.” And it almost worked.

Solidarity rallies are being held Saturday across the nation. Those wondering what (or what else) they can do to help in Wisconsin might want to consider attending one of those. Since Walker, the Kochs and out-of-state powers have decided to make what happens in Wisconsin a matter of interest, then it should be made a matter of all Americans’ interest, not just the wealthy’s.

While the push to force public workers to “share the pain” and contribute more to their benefits packages (i.e., take a pay cut) has sane, reasonable champions on both sides, to date none of the most ardent supporters of Walker’s bill, including Walker himself, have produced a sound fiscal reason for permanently eliminating collective bargaining.

In this battle, Walker has painted himself as the fiscally-responsible father who has the thankless job of caring for children who don’t understand money. But it’s not just that Walker wants everyone to turn the damn lights off if you’re not in that room: he wants to turn the lights off in the room forever.

Photographs by Nathaniel Davauer

Abe Sauer can be reached at abesauer at gmail dot com.