Tuesday, February 22, 2011

From Brenda Engel of the North Dakota Study Group

To the NDSG: An account of my experience Saturday (requested by a French journalist in Paris, Sylvie Laurent, who is a friend of my son-in-law). Feel free to quote any part of it if useful. Brenda

Madison, Wisconsin, February 19, 2011
“The North Dakota Study Group,” a national group of progressive educators, was holding its annual conference in northern Illinois over the weekend of February 18th. The second morning, Saturday, a scheduled speaker – a teacher from Milwaukee, Wisconsin – spoke eloquently and movingly about the mass demonstrations in the state capitol, Madison, not too far to the north of us, and made an urgent appeal for support. The Group, of which I’ve been a long-time member, voted to cancel activities for the remainder of the day and about fifty of us drove in tandem (in a fleet of vehicles) to Madison – a trip of something over two hours.

Arriving in mid-afternoon, we parked our van in a huge multi-leveled garage and proceeded on foot towards the Wisconsin State Capitol. As we neared the scene of the demonstration, our feelings of expectation began to intensify. The distant waves of sound became louder, the elements more distinct: magnified voices of speakers, roared responses of the audience, occasional shouts and whistles: the expressed reactions of a multitude– an estimated fifty thousand – of outraged citizens, outraged at the union-busting, reactionary bill proposed by their newly elected Republican governor.

We entered the crowd, holding onto each other in order not to become lost – although, as is usual in these high- tech times, each of us (with one exception) was equipped with a cell phone and we had, with forethought, exchanged numbers in advance. At about fifty feet before us rose a hill, also dense with people, crowned by the magnificent State Capitol itself, a luminescent, neo-classical building with high Corinthian columns and lofty dome – in style non unlike other state capitols but at that moment it seemed more beautiful than any, almost celestial, a symbol - of what? democracy? people power? hope for the future?

Before the building was the podium on which a knot of people clustered, one of whom was speaking, exhorting, encouraging and eliciting a huge response from below. Some of the words were understandable but we got the idea even when they weren’t. We were surrounded by placards, posters and banners, among them: “This is what democracy looks like” (my favorite); “Governor Walker, the whole world is watching;” and “Kill the Bill!” People of all ages and ethnicities surrounded us. More speakers, ending with a speech by an eloquent snow-plow operator: “This is not just a movement; this [has to do with] a way of life!”

After the speeches ended, we climbed the hill and joined a line entering the Capitol itself. I was surprised both at its accessibility and by the friendly welcome given us by the guards. (Of course, they are public servants as well and vulnerable to the Draconian measures being proposed by the Governor.) There were signs everywhere cautioning that the demonstration was to be “peaceable” – an echo, not the first, of Cairo. In the rotunda under the dome, a small group of teen-agers were beating out rhythms on drums and calling out slogans, on an electric megaphone, in support of “our teachers,” words then chanted by the surrounding crowd. For the first time we felt comfortably warm. After a while we were aware it was getting late, we were getting hungry and felt ready to leave.

The crowd outside was thinning; it was dark and becoming colder. As we left, I turned back and had one last view of the Wisconsin State Capitol, artfully lighted – glowing gold against the night sky.  Please reply to Brenda by email at: brendaengel@gmail.com

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