Tell Me What Democracy Looks Like!

“Tell me what democracy looks like!” a college student shouts into a bullhorn, and the crowd shouts back, “This is what democracy looks like!” The words echo in the dome of the rotunda of our State Capitol building, as we stand shoulder to shoulder on the marble floor, spilling out into the corridors, filling the second floor gallery, and the third, a mosaic of faces of all ages and occupations, a collage of signs, posted and held aloft, printed and homemade. That is what democracy looks like:

“What’s disgusting? Union busting!” “Kill the bill! Kill the bill! Kill the bill!” “Solidarity forever!” sung to the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Listening to angry and sometimes tearful testimony as protesters take their turns at the microphone, frustrated teachers, firemen in their hats, idealistic university TAs.

In the center of the floor of the rotunda a straggle of drummers pounds a primal rhythm on mismatched and improvised percussion instruments, and the words that are chanted here (like the shots in Concord) are heard around the world, anchors and pundits weighing in from network and cable television, a comic punning about a cheesehead pharaoh. Waiters carry boxes of pizzas from Ian’s on State Street purchased by supporters from all over the world, donations of coffee, water and brats. “This is what democracy looks like!”

On the square regiments of marchers surrounding the capitol, cops in blue, firefighters in their gear, guards in uniforms. Two semis emblazoned with Teamster emblems spend the night parked on the square. At noon, and again at five, rallies assemble beside the State House fuelled by tributaries of supporters coursing along the streets leading toward the Capitol. Throughout the day, demonstrators circle the building, and every evening, some of them sleep in it. “This is what democracy looks like!”

Groups collect signatures at improvised kiosks on the sidewalk, recall petitions, pledges of support; other volunteers circulate among the crowd with clipboards and pens, and we sign, all of us sign, for this is what democracy looks like.

The Ed Show is broadcast live from one corner of the square, and we gather to watch and applaud our approval. My wife caught a glimpse of Time magazine’s correspondent Joe Klein crossing a street. We missed the appearances of actor Bradley Whitford (West Wing), and we didn’t hear Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul, and Mary); however, we were present for the governor’s “Fireside Chat” when it was televised on a monitor in the rotunda and everyone present chanted and drummed, refuting his words. “This is what democracy looks like!”

And everywhere there are policemen, friendly officers who chat amicably with protesters, who are their surrogates in the demonstration. “This is what democracy looks like!”

For the protests bring out the best in people. Signs posted reminding everyone to keep the demonstration peaceful prove unnecessary. Two strangers help a mother who has one child in a stroller and a baby in a carrier make it down a flight of steps. Protesters wait patiently in line for a slice of pizza. Donated food is passed from hand to hand in the rotunda. “This is what democracy looks like!”

Speakers, signs, and history teachers remind everyone of the value of unions, the fact that these organizations were a major component in the building of the middle class, a social segment recognized as the backbone of society. The middle class has been hit especially hard by the recession, and the governor’s Budget Repair Bill will chip away at it still more. Is this what democracy looks like?

Our governor reveals during what he thinks is a private conversation with one of the billionaire Koch brothers his consideration of planting agitators among peaceful demonstrators, and his plan to lure the 14 democratic senators from exile back to the Capitol under false pretenses of compromise. He discloses that his actual purpose is not to gain financial concessions to balance the budget, but rather to seize the opportunity to break public unions in Wisconsin. Is this what democracy looks like?

The Assembly uses parliamentary maneuvers to abruptly end debate in the middle of the night, call for a vote on the Budget Repair Bill, and seconds later close voting before all of the democratic members have had a chance to vote. Our own assemblyman voted with the republican majority to cripple unions. Is this what democracy looks like?

“I voted for Scott Walker,” I hear again and again, “but I didn’t know he would do something like this!” Is this what democracy looks like?

Democracy for this writer looks like working class people who make modest livings through collective bargaining for public services they offer – services providing protection, care, nurture, and education. In short, helping those people who cannot always help themselves. Democracy does not look for scapegoats, does not exploit the vulnerable, does not profit from those whose only defense is their numbers.

My wife and I found our experience in Madison inspirational, along with the fact that protests are now in their third week, the 14 democratic senators remain firm, and demonstrators continue to assemble.

Although we are frustrated by the actions of our governor (this week restricting access to the capitol and calling for massive cuts to education), we have retained our faith in democracy. We may lose this battle, but ultimately common sense and justice will prevail. Our government was founded upon principles of equality that led to civil rights, which include the guarantees of free speech, assembly, and, yes, the right to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining. Those rights may not be abridged.

Gary Jones is a freelance writer, poet and retired teacher living in Northern Door. He and his wife have made two trips to protest in Madison and are planning a third. This commentary was posted on March 2.