Archive for March, 2011

Social movements and observations from a day in Wisconsin

March 21, 2011

Given my interest in social movements (such as the Nike social movement that gained momentum in the late 1990s), I have been intrigued by the rallies taking place in such locations as Wisconsin and Michigan. With the chance to gain some first hand insight about these events, I spent a day at the state capitol in Madison, WI on Tues., March 15. Throughout the day, there were relatively sporadic groups of protesters around the capitol. There was little organization to the protests, as many individuals indicated they came out briefly during a lunch break or slipped away from work for an hour or two. This is perhaps not surprising as it was a Tuesday and Governor Scott Walker had signed the bill on the previous Friday. However, in speaking with people throughout the day, we heard about a rally to take place at 4 o’clock that afternoon in front of the M&I Bank building across the street from the capitol.

For context, M&I Bank took money during the TARP bailout, has donated to the Walker campaign, and is involved in a forthcoming buyout that will move its headquarters out of state to Chicago – a deal in which CEO Mark Furlong will receive an $18 million bonus after the sale closes. The rally featured approximately 150 people marching in front of the bank, carrying signs, and chanting slogans. The rally itself appeared to receive some brief coverage by one of the local TV affiliates, but not much else. A more thorough account of the rally can be found at PR Watch.

Perhaps the most interesting event happened as the rally was culminating with some brief remarks from speakers, including Peter Rickman of the UW Teaching Assistants’ Association. At one point – and I’m not sure how to best word this, but I’ll describe the guy as “overenthusiastic” – a man demanded the megaphone from Rickman, which he reluctantly handed over. This impromptu speaker opened his remarks by saying that he was just arrested the other day “for no reason” (a statement which, upon later reflection, I question). The man identified himself as “Union Mike from Vegas” and went on to talk for 30 seconds or so about something not particularly intelligible, including a recommendation to eschew traditional currency for copper and zinc. After reacquiring the megaphone, Rickman continued speaking. Another man at the rally then diverted Mike’s attention by conducting a pseudo interview with him, after which another individual asked him to come across the street to speak further, helping to diffuse the situation. This example serves as a useful case study about how to deal with an “overenthusiastic” protester who shows up at a rally, and I think the organizers did a pretty good job in this case.

Just when it appeared the situation with our overzealous friend from Sin City had been diffused, State Senator Glenn Grothman began crossing the capitol lawn toward M&I Bank. Grothman, the assistant majority leader of the senate, had referred to the protesters as “slobs” in previous remarks. As Grothman approached the bank, he was recognized by some protesters, who began chanting “shame, shame, shame!” Grothman then entered the bank building. I think it’s worth asking why he would wait until the middle of the protest to enter the bank, but, who knows, he may have had a really urgent deposit. Anyway, after a couple minutes, Grothman exited the bank, at which time he was again greeted by the ire of many at the rally. As he crossed the street, however, Grothman was intercepted by none other than Mike with what was later described as a “big bear hug.” Several protesters concerned with this turn of events were able to facilitate in ending the embrace after 3-4 seconds of awkwardness. Interestingly, once this event was chronicled in a police report, it received coverage far exceeding the original rally. For example, local TV affiliates, the Wisconsin State Journal, and smaller local newspapers took interest in the squeeze, as, of course, did bloggers.

A final interesting note to this event is that Grothman has claimed the police are not properly protecting M&I Bank from protesters. One question that comes to mind is: what would Grothman consider an appropriate level of “protection”? Throughout the rally I witnessed that day, at least four police officers stood within about 50 feet of the protesters. They appeared to be closely observing the rally, and I’m sure they would likely have intervened if any  violence had taken place. But short of that, what intervention would he have the police take during a non-violent protest?