In Heavy Snow, Massive Crowd Rallies in Madison

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The state Capitol Square in Madison, Wisconsin, is now overflowing with protesters, in a demonstration that is even bigger than last Saturday’s massive demonstration — and in freezing, snowy weather to boot.

Last Saturday’s protest was huge, with estimates of 55,000 or more. But many other reporters I’ve spoken to agree that there are even more today. The Wisconsin State Journal posted at 12:30 p.m. local time — before the rally began — that the crowd size was almost 70,000 people. I should add that it has only gotten significantly bigger since then.

On top of that, last Saturday was sunny and relatively warm for February, while this afternoon it’s 17 degrees Fahrenheit with heavy snow coming down.

So take this as a clear sign that even if the Wisconsin Assembly has passed Gov. Scott Walker’s budget repair bill, with its anti-public employee union proposals, the passion of demonstrators here is not dying down. The bill is still stuck in the state Senate — where the minority Democrats have left the state in order to block the three-fifths budget quorum — and each step of this process might only turn up the political heat.

The rally began in a true Madison spirit, combining political protest and college town pep rally into one. Among the opening musical acts was a brass and drums band who were introduced by the M.C. as “not the official UW Alumni Band,” playing all the tunes that people in Madison regularly hear at sporting events, mixing in the “Kill The Bill” slogan that has predominated in the demonstrations.

Folk singer Peter Yarrow — of “Peter, Paul and Mary” fame — played some politically themed tunes such as “If I Had A Hammer,” “Which Side Are You On,” “Blowin’ In The Wind” and more, and spoke of his hopes that the current crisis in Madison would reawaken in people the urge to achieve social justice that animated people during the civil rights movement. And like his audience, Yarrow often worked “Kill The Bill” and other slogans into the lyrics. (Nostalgia for my childhood made me wish for “Puff The Magic Dragon,” but I suppose it wasn’t germane.)

The rally is still going as I sit in the Capitol’s press room to write this dispatch. Other speakers have included Wisconsin teacher’s union leader Mary Bell, a group of clergy, and former West Wing actor and Madison native Bradley Whitford.

Earlier today, Madison radio host and historian Stu Levitan told me that the continued size of the crowds here “dwarfs anything from the Vietnam Era” — and, he added, “There aren’t any buildings being blown up.”

As I’ve written before, as a former Madison resident, it is important for out-of-staters to realize that Wisconsin’s Democratic Party is fundamentally a labor party. Thus, any actions viewed as union-busting are by extension Democrat-busting, kicking up a political storm throughout the state.

Furthermore, it should be explained that Wisconsin’s political culture for the past century has been based on class consciousness. The first half of the 20th century saw quite a bit of labor strife, which ultimately quieted down for the past several decades but remained strong as a historical tradition. Until now, that class consciousness was in a state of equilibrium.

Have a governor propose a crackdown on the public employee unions, however — and you get non-stop protests, crowds of tens of thousands on the weekends, Peter Yarrow leading those tens of thousands in a sing-along of “Which Side Are You On,” and more.

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