All eyes are on Wisconsin these days. Governor Scott Walker unveiled details of his budget repair bill on February 11; the bill itself is 144 pages, but provisions that immediately captured attention were those that remove the collective bargaining rights of most state and local employees. By Monday, February 14, when the bill was introduced, protestors began to fill the Capitol building in Madison. As the week went on, more and more people descended on the Capitol to protest the passage of the bill, with Saturday’s crowd topping at an estimated 68,000, 60,000 of whom flooded the Capitol grounds and square, while another 8,000 filled the Capitol building itself. Even more were expected yesterday, which was a furlough day for many state employees.
What is happening in Madison, Wisconsin, is monumental, and I am not solely referring to the proposals contained in the bill. What is exceptionally important here is that we are able to see the expression of constitutional rights in a most obvious way, a fact that I think has received little attention.
All last week (and undoubtedly continuing this week), protestors against the bill have flocked to the Capitol, bearing signs and chanting slogans, all of them exercising their constitutionally guaranteed rights of free speech and peaceful assembly. They want to be heard. Last Saturday, for the first time during the week of protests, there arrived opposition to the opposition. Pro-bill supporters arrived in the Capitol for a rally at noon and many remained throughout the afternoon, stationed at various points on the Capitol square or walking in the protest crowd. And it was peaceful. On Saturday, the most crowded day on the square, there was not one protest-related arrest. In fact, during the course of all last week, ten people were ticketed for disorderly conduct, a number lower than citations issued during some Badger football home game days.
Whether the protests will have their intended effect remains to be seen. Voting on the bill has been stalled because, after all fourteen of the Democrat Senators left the state on Thursday, the Senate lacks a quorum to call the vote. The Democrats say they’ll return if Governor Walker will negotiate the bill’s provisions, a prospect that does not appear likely. More to the point here is that we are able to see a sustained non-violent opposition process at work. The state has long been a leader for progressive ideas. It would be nice to say that it is also leader in showing how peaceful opposition to government works.