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'This Is What Democracy Looks Like' in Wisconsin, as Largest Crowd Yet—80,000—Opposes Union Busting | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

Breaking news and analysis of politics, the economy and activism.

'This Is What Democracy Looks Like' in Wisconsin, as Largest Crowd Yet—80,000—Opposes Union Busting

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker finished a bad week with a misstep that emphasized his inability to generate support for his attempt to strip the state’s public employees of collective bargaining rights.

First, the governor’s radical proposal went to such extremes in its anti-labor bias that it sparked a protest movement so large, so steady and so determined in its demands that it is now commonly compared with the protests that have rocked Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries.

Then, the man that badges worn by marchers describe as “The Mubarak of the Middle West” really blew it. Saturday was supposed to be the day when the governor pushed back against the movement that has challenged his radical power grab. The governor’s Tea Party allies attempted to grab the spotlight with a rally at the state Capital. Unfortunately, the much-hyped event, which national Tea Party groups had poured money and organizing energy into generating, drew an anemic crowd of several thousand. Even by the optimistic estimates of the Tea Partisans themselves, the pro-Walker turnout was one-tenth the size of the crowd that came to oppose the governor’s so-called “budget repair bill.”

The governor made things worse for himself by going on CNN and announcing that he had received 19,000 e-mails from the “quiet majority” of Wisconsinites since he made his proposal and claimed that most of them were supportive.

Dumb move. Really dumb move.

Within hours of making his claim, the streets of Madison were filled by what veteran political organizers described as the largest demonstration ever seen in the city. Former Mayor Paul Soglin, a key organizer of anti–Vietnam War protests, said, “We had some big demonstrations in the sixties, but this is bigger.”

Organizers of a 2004 rally featuring Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and rocker Bruce Springsteen, where the crowd was estimated at 80,000, pointed out that Saturday’s protest against Walker’s budget filled a significantly larger space. And, they noted, thousands of addition opponents of the governor’s proposal packed the Capitol.

Mahlon Mitchell, the president of the Wisconsin Professional Firefighters Association, which has been a high-profile participant in the demonstrations, surveyed the crowd while recounting Walker’s boast about the 19,000 e-mails.

“I think I have 19,000 people behind me,” said Mitchell.

Pointing to one edge of the massive audience arrayed before him, he said: “And 20,000 there.”

He pointed to the other edge of the crowd: “And 20,000 there.”

Finally, he pointed down State Street, the thoroughfare that stretches from the Capitol to the University of Wisconsin campus, which was packed with students who have backed the unions: “And 20,000 there.”

Rallying with Mitchell was Wisconsin Education Association Council president Mary Bell, who picked up on the “this-is-what-democracy-looks-like” theme that has become so central to the marches, rallies and pickets that have swept not just Madison but a state where even small towns have seen protests against Walker’s bill.

“The power of government in this state does not come from this Capitol,” she said of the building that was surrounded by teachers, educational assistants, nurses, snow-plow drivers and state engineers, as well as their tens of thousands of backers. “The power comes from the people.”

And while Scott Walker may claim a  “quiet majority” of 19,000 e-mails received by his office, a noisy majority of more than 80,000 Wisconsinites braved a winter day to tell the governor that the people have spoken: they’re with the unions.

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