Wisconsin protests: What the union defenders in Madison have in common with Tea Party activists.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 22 2011 10:27 AM

The Cheddar Revolution

What the protesters in Madison have in common with Tea Party activists.

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The drum lines and the out-of-state sleepovers are a relatively new part of the protest. They were probably inevitable. One reason why Madison is a tricky place to start a Republican crackdown on union power is that it's home to a sprawling university and all manner of left-wing organizations, magnets for Midwest liberal activism. The Grassroots Leadership College, based here, is using the occasion to hold Nonviolent Demonstration Trainings around the clock, sharing tips like "Don't make sudden moves around the police" and "Write the ACLU's phone number on your body" (for when you're arrested and your phone is taken). Ian's Pizza, a restaurant close to the Capitol, has been delivering an endless supply of free food paid for by donors from around the world; the leftover boxes are immediately turned into makeshift protest signs. There's free coffee and water, and on some days free bratwurst, all from local shops.

The hardiest protesters, the ones who have been on strike—a teacher's strike ends tomorrow—say they feel they are doing something worthwhile. Alyson Pohlman, who works for the university, walks in and out of the capitol building with one of the 12 signs she's made over seven days of protests. If the budget repair bill passes, she calculates that she'll make 14 percent less than she used to. But this concerns her less than the cause she is supporting, which she describes as ensuring that "the voice of the people" remains strong enough to speak out against corporate America.

A lot of the protesters talk like this. They don't want to lose bargaining rights, but they couch that worry in a broader, more existential fear: What if they're losing their country? It is almost impossible not to hear echoes of Tea Party protesters. (There are some common slogans: I spotted one "Mad as Hell" and one "Can You Hear Us Now?" sign.) The Tea Party worries about George Soros and ACORN; the Cheddar Revolutionaries worry about libertarian billionaires Charles and David Koch, and an overall Republican strategy to "defund the left." They cite New Yorker and New York Times reports to make this case, and they're scared.

There are countless signs attacking the Kochs, or Walker as a "Koch tool," or listing which products to boycott in order to hit the Kochs' pocketbooks. And there are detailed charts explaining that if unions are neutered politically, the biggest campaign donors in America will be "right-wing." Mark Jansen, who drove to the protests from Indiana, walks the capitol with a yellow umbrella that came free with some Eggo waffles, and is now festooned with anti-Koch, anti-Citizens United slogans.

"Walker's a pink, naked purse dog for the Kochs!" he says.

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Late in the evening, long after Walker's presser has ended, the drummers are still in the capitol. Other protesters are settling in for sleep. The rumor of the moment is that the state will find a way to expel them from the building. This rumor has cropped up from time to time, and it survives because there is a readiness, if not willingness, to expect the worst.

"This is Normandy," says Brian Austin, one of the protesting Madison police officers, heading home for the night. "If we lose this, everything changes."

Click here to view a slide show on protest signs in Wisconsin.

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