Today began simply enough; as I write this at 1:30Am, I strongly believe I witnessed something historical today. Not only for Wisconsin, but historical for politics around the United States.
I am of course talking about the protests outside the State Capitol building in Madison, where exponentially larger crowds have descended on Capitol Square over the past 4 days in a fashion I never thought I’d witness. Crowds of 10,000 the first day, then 20,000 and now an estimated 25,000 people gathered outside and inside the Capitol today to fight Walker’s proposed Budget Repair Bill which would end collective bargaining rights for public employees, among many other changes.
Today proved my cynicism with my earlier post about protests got the best of me. This is like nothing I’ve ever seen before — like nothing anyone familiar with UW-Madison and its usual radical politics has ever seen.
As I mentioned above, today began pretty simply — I went to my history lecture this morning and thought I might head over to the Capitol to see what’s up. However, I got a call from the art director of Madison Magazine, who asked me right after my lecture, “If you’re not busy, Channel 3 is looking for a photojournalist to cover the protests today.” Obviously I accepted, completely naive of what “cover the protests” would mean. That coverage meant all day…
From noon until midnight I was in and around the Capitol. Eating when possible, uploading as frequently as I was able and captioning as quickly as I could.
While most professional photojournalists probably find this experience to be something ordinary, I’ve never been thrown into such a firestorm of humanity, all the protesters screaming and yelling and sweating and doing all they could to plead with whoever would listen to them. Their dedication was remarkable…and inspiring. I felt I couldn’t leave because that would be letting them down somehow.
This isn’t to say that the environment was necessarily overwhelming, I was just awestruck by it all. I found myself frequently staring, trying to soak it all in.
As I gathered caption information I found myself asking people I photographed how long they’d been at the Capitol, what their occupation was or what motivated them to be there. Their answers ran the gamut — there were teachers and union leaders, kindergartners and their parents, and even those unaffected by the bill itself, but standing with their fellow citizens on principle.
For the most part, the crowd remained relatively peaceful, if not playful in their chants and songs. However, soon after Governor Walker announced to the media he would hold a press conference, hostility escalated.
I had to fight my way through a crowd in the hundreds, if not very near a thousand, of people who had gathered outside Walker’s office in the Capitol where he was to hold the press conference.
Drum beats got deeper and drove chants of “Kill the Bill.” I threw my credentials around my neck and weaved and pushed my way through the crowd, periodically yelling above the noise, “Media! Media!” Bizarrely, as I came within about 50 feet of Walker’s office, I met a wall of protesters refusing to let me through. They screamed obscenities at me and other photojournalists who followed me. They demanded to know “why” I needed to be in there, or why they should move (you’d think “media” was a good enough reason). Despite my efforts to convince them to let me through, they refused. I turned toward one of the Capitol police and he helped escort me to the office doors. Protesters then tried to trip or shove me as I walked between them. I still don’t understand their motive for doing so. As I approached Walker’s office, the ground shook with chants of “Kill the Bill.”
After the press conference I uploaded once more, and didn’t return to the Capitol again until 11pm to photograph those who decided to sleep over inside the Capitol building. Some who I interviewed had been there all three nights. Bags hung under their eyes as they tried to pass time with their friends.
I’m curious to see what tomorrow brings. Walker seems sure the bill will pass tomorrow, and I wonder if Madison might see the biggest crowd all week. Regardless of what happens, I’ve never been so proud to be a journalist, a photographer, a UW-Madison student and Wisconsin resident. I can only hope my images are effective in capturing the emotion, pride, initiative, exhaustion and resolve in many of these people.