Wisconsin Protests -- Life in the Trenches

02/24/2011 05:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

2011-02-24-DSC08291.JPG"Go pick up some damn trash and make some damn noise." That's clean up rule number five out of seven on a poster board hanging on the third floor of Wisconsin's capitol.

In the last week and a half, a staggering number of wet, muddy shoes have stomped through the rotunda. Over 30,000 pieces of pizza have been delivered to the Capitol address. And the walls, composed of 43 varieties of stones from around the world, are covered in signs denouncing Governor Scott Walker's proposed budget bill.

One would assume the place is a dump. But the iconic building, the only capitol ever built on an isthmus, is being kept clean thanks to some organization and a list of trash rules written in permanent marker. The floors are clean, the stairs are spotless and the bathrooms are stocked with toilet paper and soap.

Volunteers have been working to keep the place clean from day one, Damon Terrell, a 19-year-old Madison student explained. "People were scrubbing the capitol floors with sponges before we had mops... it's about respecting the space and looking after each other."

But sponges were only getting so far and more organization was needed. Trevor Young-Hyman, 29, of the Teacher's Assistant Association (TAA) recognized the need for some sort of infrastructure and knew that maintaining the Capitol cleanliness was vital for the longevity of the protests.

"We realized if we want to keep this going, we needed services," he said, sitting next to tables full of food and boxes of cleaning supplies. These services included everything from, "... giving people food, forming a good relationship with the police, making people peaceful, discouraging hate speech, discouraging provocative or hateful signs, and keeping the capitol clean."

So Young-Hyman began talking to custodians. "It became obvious that first of all, people create a lot of trash, and the custodial workers are on the same side as us," he explained. "We all want collective bargaining, so we want to make it [their job] easy for them."

There was an obvious need for supplies. set up a specific donation system for "capitol building clean up." The donations are put straight to use. A small corner on the third floor of the capitol has become trash clean up central, with instructions, supplies, and plenty of snacks.

"A lot of people here want to do something besides just protest," Young-Hyman said. "So they come here [TAA headquarters in the capitol] as volunteers, asking what they can do, so we find things for them to do, such as pick up trash." And no one feels "above" picking up trash, he clarifies. "People just want to take an active role."

Indeed, it's more than just picking up garbage, the "Trash Clean Up," instruction board reads. "(1) This is not only about picking up trash. This is about letting people know we care about this place and that we take care of it (we = unions)."

In Young-Hyman's words, that means "...We take better care of this capitol than Scott Walker, that's the message."

If there is one word to describe the protesters, it's "vocal." The third rule encourages making cleaning a rally event, saying "Grab some pals, if possible, so you can make more noise together." The suggested chant is listed on the bottom of the poster board and it seemed that every TAA leader had done the chant dozens of times. "The chant is 'Pick trash up, put it in the bag, pick (blank) up, put it in the bag.' Sometimes we say 'put Walker in the bag,' and that gets some laughs," another TAA leader, Martina Kunovic' said smiling.

The constant stream of volunteers, occasionally chanting ones, work day and night. There are four cleaning shifts daily, according to Young-Hyman, morning, afternoon, evening and night. Every hour or two, volunteers make rounds to clean up. The cleaning crews have even started a recycling program, which is pretty impressive considering that thousands of donated bottles of water are delivered to the capitol daily.
But the rules listed on the poster board do not cover everything. Gentle reminders to "take care of our house" are everywhere -- on posters on every floor on the capitol, in the bathrooms and on information pamphlets. Outside of one women's bathroom, for example, a handwritten note reads, "Please do not 'tag' or write on anything. By doing so you're causing more harm than good. This is your house respect it. Thank you."

The cooperation of protesters has been incredibly inspiring, Young-Hyman said, and the volunteers help spread the peace. The second rule states "Wear sanitary gloves and post a peaceful protest sign on your back or front." Those peaceful signs are spread inside and outside the capitol, "Remember, this is a peaceful protest," the signs read. With hundreds of thousands of protesters, only a handful of protesters have been arrested.

"We heard news reports that we were disorderly, rebellious, and there was trash everywhere," he said, as a man walked by in a fluorescent vest, a peace sign on his back, and a garbage bag in hand. "But that's not what this is. It's sustainable and respectful, but it's also us forcefully saying we will be here as long as it takes."