Volunteers help Wis. protesters keep up the fight

AP News
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Posted: Feb 26, 2011 4:27 PM
Volunteers help Wis. protesters keep up the fight

Harriet Rowan was among the first to join what has become an almost two-week-long rally at the Wisconsin Capitol, and she said with the arrival of thousands of others, confusion, misinformation and rumors quickly spread.

"I came back on Tuesday night and there was absolutely no organization," Rowan said. "People needed people to go up upstairs and testify all night to keep the building open ... people were going around just waking people up ... it was chaotic."

The University of Wisconsin senior made a spur-of-the-moment decision to coordinate protest efforts, making signs with media talking points and starting a Twitter feed detailing legislative meeting times, union rally locations and details on day-to-day life in the Capitol.

Other Madison residents have opened their doors to out-of-town strangers, offering a bed to anyone friendly to unions. At the Statehouse, a spread including pizza, chili and artisanal cheeses is offered to hungry protesters. Busloads of supporters from Los Angeles and elsewhere arrive to boost the numbers.

Nearly two weeks after the start of massive protests against Gov. Scott Walker's proposal that would strip nearly all public employees of their collective bargaining rights erupted, a network of volunteers has emerged as the skeleton that keeps the daily demonstrations alive.

Widespread protests began Feb. 15, with 13,000 people attending rallies in and around the Capitol. Crowds peaked at 70,000 a week ago, a few thousand of which were tea party counter-protesters. Since then, crowds outside the Capitol have dipped significantly, although thousands of protesters packed the building and surrounding streets on Saturday, while thousands of others demonstrated in support of them in rallies planned for all 50 states.

Outside the Statehouse in St. Paul, Minn., about 1,000 people waved signs of support for the Wisconsin protesters and chanted "workers' rights are human rights." Democratic U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison addressed the rally and encouraged the protesters to keep up the fight. Similar rallies took place in Denver, New York City, Topeka, Kan., Lansing, Mich., Harrisburg, Pa., and elsewhere.

In Ohio, thousands of union members and environmentalists rallied outside the Statehouse in Columbus against proposed legislation similar to Wisconsin's that would abolish most collective bargaining rights.

Back in Madison, Carol DeGrave, 53, a middle school media coordinator in Green Bay, held a sign that read "Stay Strong, Stay Long!" She said she's protested for the last three days because she's afraid that without collective bargaining, her school district will cut her position.

"We're not going to shut up," she said, "because this is wrong. It is such an injustice."

In a third-floor room where the UW-Madison Teaching Assistants Association has based its support operations, a wood conference table is dwarfed by a mountain of bedding supplies, while posters organizing protests, rides and class coverage for absent TAs line the walls.

"I think in general having a sense of humor in all of this has been important," said Kevin Gibbons, TAA co-president. "You have some students I've been talking to reflecting on it and they say, `Everybody sort of seems happy, this is a serious protest.' But it is needed to sustain this kind of energy."

The rotunda ground floor is at the heart of the protests, with drums and a microphone attached to a megaphone. The din is deafening. Some drummers wrap their hands with blue painter's tape to avoid injury from the repetitive pounding.

Most of those in the drum circle are unaffiliated with unions or political groups. Most are Madison residents or students, like UW graduate student Tom Bird.

"Friday night, I started slowly drumming a little and talking on the microphone once or twice," Bird said. "Then it just sort of snowballed. On Saturday, Sunday I'm leading massive groups of people in cheers. ... When you see other people doing it, it sets an example and makes it a little less scary."

The Capitol's north wing became a protester service center. Donated food laid out on tables fuels the villagers.

It starts in the morning with breakfast cereals and bagels. Later in the day, tables are stocked with tortilla chips, specialty breads and vegan bakery items from a local coffee shop. Gallons of soup and chili arrived from a cafe, as well as cheese spreads from several sources and thousands of slices of pizza from a restaurant.

"We teach at the high school and work in community farms and with small businesses," said Mermaid Cafe owner David McKercher. "When the teachers are in trouble and the health profession is in trouble, those are our associates, so we jump in there. I feel like bringing the food is what our role is now."

Between the empty pizza boxes and steaming teakettles is a makeshift day care center. Kids play on the marble floor, using markers and art supplies to draw murals on butcher paper. Parents are told that volunteers can look after the kids for 15 minutes if they need to use restrooms or get supplies.

At the medical center, street medics and the occasional doctor or specialist _ identified by their red-masking-taped-crosses _ tend to minor cuts and bruises. The biggest focus is hygiene, with boxes of deodorant, mouthwash, toothpaste, tampons and hand purifier along the walls.

The attention to cleanliness was paramount for many, but odors still pervaded in certain areas. The service station's mix of teas, pizzas and hand purifier produced a scent similar to a hospital cafeteria. Pungent aromas occasionally lingered on the upper floors, especially when a few protesters removed their shoes after a long day on their feet.

Protesters who don't stay in the Capitol have plenty of options. Paul Adler, who traveled to Madison from Washington, D.C., said he didn't know exactly where he was going to stay on the bus ride from Chicago, but had such a wealth of offers that he could choose accommodations based on proximity to the Capitol and bedding options.

Capitol police have allowed protesters to stay 24 hours a day and hundreds do most nights. But police plan to end the sleepover at 4 p.m. Sunday, setting up a potential showdown in what has been a relatively incident-free protest.

"I'm pretty sure there will be people unwilling to leave the building on their own two feet," Rowan said.

The crowds have been protesting the new Republican governor's plan to strip most public employees of their collective bargaining rights and force them to pay more for their health care and retirement benefits. Unions would not be able to collect mandatory dues and would be forced to conduct annual votes of their members to stay in existence.

Walker, who has refused to budge despite the protests, contends that the legislation is necessary for the state to deal with its budget deficit. But Democratic and union leaders say it's a political move meant to weaken one of the traditional foundations of the Democratic Party base.

The legislation passed in the state Assembly but is stalled in the state Senate because its 14 Democratic members fled the state, leaving the Senate one vote short of a quorum.

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Associated Press writers Todd Richmond and Pat Condon in Madison, Julie Carr Smith in Columbus, Ohio, and Tim Martin in Lansing, Mich., contributed to this report.