I joined first a trickle, then a river and finally a sea of people making their way to the Capitol Mall in Madison, Wisconsin on Saturday. The river moved counterclockwise around the capitol building as drums played and feet marched and someone began a call and response chant that went something like this:
The speaker: "Show me what democracy looks like."
The river: "This is what democracy looks like!"
Soon the cadence rippled through the entire crowd as smiles lit up the river, then ignited an ocean. They may have been one in their consternation and despairing but there was a smiling camaraderie that fanned out as far as one could see.
People seemed resolute but cheerful! They were kind, respectful and polite; I must have heard and said "Excuse me" a thousand times to a crowd estimated at more than a hundred thousand-- waves of diversity: youth, elderly, handicapped, children, and all the in-betweens. There were firefighters in their uniforms; off duty security and law enforement; hard hats; teachers; nurses; public works employees; healthcare workers; the Teamsters, Boilermakers and Transport Workers unions; and they brought their families--many of them still in strollers. A fraction came from other states to show their solidarity with Wisconsin workers. There was even an announcement about a sympathetic rally in Berlin, Germany to show support for Wisconsin ideals.
And that is what seemed most important at the rally--ideals. The rally seemed more about philosophy than the concerning material issues about budget or political parties.
"The ego has landed."
"I want my democracy back."
"This is a civil rights battle!"
"The moral compass of the leaders is broken."
"Walker- in school we call this 'bullying.'"
"An injury to one is an injury to all."
"We have just begun the fight."
"Democracy or deception?"
"Democracy doesn't end on election day."
Governor Walker, tear down this wall!"
"This is a fight for those who are elected by the people to listen to the people."
"You have awakened a sleeping giant."
And indeed a giant may have been wakened. Something certainly was awakened in Wisconsin and it seems that whatever it is, it has echoes elsewhere in the world. I'm not sure there is a word for it yet. Despite the seriousness of the issues to the crowd, the mood was friendly and elevated, but the voices resolute, the faces determined. I saw or heard the slogan "Power to the People" throughout the day. It was reminiscent of the sixties.
Some rally participants carried inflated palm trees-- an obvious mocking of Fox News' faux pas in featuring a clip of a supposedly "Wisconsin" rally highlighting angry participants shoving and railing against authorities that included palm trees in the background. (There are no palm trees in Wisconsin and there was no violence on the Madison campus during the rally). The first amendment is important to Wisconsinites but so is integrity in media, the right to petition for redress against grievances and the right to peaceable assembly.
An idealist and activist all my life (anti-war and Viet Nam, nukes and chem weapons) I had been wondering for quite awhile if people were really aware of what was happening in the world? Did they sense the same creeping cynicism, a sardonic mood in the political and social landscape? I worried that the current generation was growing apathetic and limp in its complacency. Was it a resurrection of the fifties when people went along with the status quo, the leaders and the prevailing agendas. I wondered what might happen if ever the chips were down. Would they find their voices? Would there be voices? Would they be loud? Make themselves heard? But most critically--would they even care enough to speak up?
I needn't have worried; and apparently the chips are down. The mood of the crowd on Saturday and the finger on the pulse of it told me-- idealists live! That the people are still capable of leading when they want the leaders to follow. Idealism is the furnace where hope burns brightest. And it ignites the fires under the crucible of change.
No matter what side of the issue you come down on, there is something delightful and inspiring about the coming together of people in a common bond for something greater than themselves. Especially when they do it with non-violence and peacefully. It's inspiring when there is a stand-up-and-push-back against something that people view as amoral or an infringement on civil rights. And that is how that crowd appeared to see it--as a trampling on the rights of the common man. For most, it was an identification with the principles that accompany a democracy. And a willingness to negotiate and compromise; to sacrifice for the right reasons--but they must involve human acknowledgement of dignity and worth. It's about value and valuing the common man and the least of those among us.
Wisconsin isn't famous just for dairy cows, the Green Bay Packers and cheese heads--the heads on Saturday held and valued freedom over cheese. There is a long tradition of labor rights in Wisconsin. It is the birthplace of "Fighting Bob LaFollete," an attorney and Republican who became a Progressive because he thought the Republican Party had abandoned its ideals of anti-slavery and its leanings toward autonomy and people over industry and corporate interests. He is credited with party reform in favor of voter control and consumer rights and a direct by-the-people-democracy. He was Wisconsin's Governor who became a Senator campaigning on that "Power to the People" platform. The battle for government 'by the people, for the people' and individual rights was hard fought and hard won in Wisconsin so Wisconsinites don't like having their rights taken away. And that appears to be how they view the current leadership--as taking away rights that took more than forty years to establish. The LaFollete tradition of citizens more involved in their government is strong; election recall campaigns are underway.
There is something bigger going on here. In fact, there is something going on in the world and it is gathering momentum and racing headlong toward critical mass. Wisconsin's concern for what is seen as the trampling of inherent freedoms echoes the clarion call in the Middle East and North Africa. There is a kind of common fatigue at work. One can feel it in the crowds; they are tired of something unnameable as yet. There is a resolute determination and deep desire for change. Immersed in the human river, one feels that also. And yes, something powerful is being awakened, that sleeping giant movement is just beginning to stretch, yawn, shake itself conscious, and move.
As I spoke to people about the obvious philosophical nature of the rally in Wisconsin, I heard a collective voice of disdain and revolt against a philosophy that is perceived at once as tyrannical, oppressive, arbitrary power-mongering, sublime bullying, patriarchal and an oligarchy. It embraces and moves with a kind of inherent fatigue that consumes yet engages a hard push-back against a perceived kind terrorism trampling the civil rights of the very people it is supposed to represent.
If indeed this is a movement, it has the makings of reform not just locally, but globally. It appears to be gaining momentum and hasn't yet reached crescendo. It serves the common principles of worth, dignity and the recognition of civil and human rights. It appears to be sweeping in nature. I'm not sure what to call it yet, but I feel it. Many do. It is a solidarity that asks leadership to listen. To place a finger on the heart, not head, to feel its heartbeat. To bring a change and create the kind of world that values and respects the rights of all humans over power structures. It asks us fundamentally to 'be the change' by enacting the changes that will get us there--perhaps to even become what we wish to see in and as the world.
More inspiring than Rev. Jesse Jackson who spoke about Martin Luther King and the anniversaries of voter rights, Susan Sarandon who said 'Wisconsin is the front line in the war to restore democracy," and even the 14 Wisconsin Senators who remembered the power in dissent and civil disobedience, was a young man who gave a platform to the common person. He gained permission from the capitol security police to set up his microphone and speakers so that average people could have a voice. Students spoke about their teachers and thanked them for their educations; farmers thanked the crowd for their solidarity-- something farmers have not achieved so well in the state. One man who came with his personal equipment to give voice to the common man was the embodiment of a metaphor for the entire gathering-- he gave voice to those who might otherwise not be heard. He demonstrated how very simple democracy is-- give a voice to the people and listen when they speak.