"I LOVE my teachers, I love my public workers, I love everybody!" one student yelled into a bullhorn from the rotunda of the Madison, Wis., capitol building on February 19.
The day I was there, an estimated 70,000 demonstrators showed up for the sixth consecutive day of protests to denounce Gov. Scott Walker's bill that would end collective bargaining for public-sector workers while increasing employee contributions to pensions and benefits.
The jubilance and friendliness of Saturday's protests were those of a family reunion and music festival (minus the outrageous ticket and beverage prices) combined. Weaving through a crowd to meet someone or find a bathroom was no problem, people eagerly stepped aside to let you pass or lent a hand to help you walk over coats and backpacks.
When someone sent a community bag of trail mix throughout the crowd, people's reluctance to accept food from strangers visibly gave way to gratitude. Students with bass drums and buckets led chants for hours, at one point rhythmically reminding folks to "pick up trash; put it in the bag," which we gladly did. Police and volunteer security guards with signs reading "this is a peaceful protest" offered help and needed instructions.
As an activist and health care worker from Chicago, I didn't feel like an outsider. Holding a sign that read "Chicago Loves Wisconsin Teachers," I was welcomed with countless thumbs-ups, "thank yous" and warm smiles from fellow protesters.
A teacher from Green Bay showed concern for attacks on workers in Chicago. She told the story of how her school superintendent brought a sheet cake to the teacher's lounge last week to ostensibly "thank" the staff for supporting the kids by not leaving work. She was resolute that supporting the kids means being in the capitol to defend teachers' voice in matters relating to their work environment.
Another teacher from Brookfield cautiously explained how she and her colleagues were warned via e-mail that anyone who called off work and was seen on the news would be terminated. She too told of teachers being brought donuts thanking them for obeying orders to come to school on Friday. "They don't get it," she said.
The camaraderie in Madison was not to be confused with passivity. The demands to preserve union power in the name of justice rang loud and clear in every quarter of the building and vicinity.
The truly inspiring message resonated not only with our Chicago caravan but seemingly with supporters from places as far away as Boston and San Francisco. The frequently used slogan "It's not about the money" was one of the few that struck me as out of place.
The widespread solidarity among the multiracial crowd of people old, young, unionized and non-unionized indicated no need to recycle the defensive strategy of answering to myths of unions being greedy.
At this point, it's impossible to gloss over the reality of the wealth disparity in this country and the devastating effects it has on the majority of us. Tax cuts for the rich, a gift to corporate campaign donors who give to the likes of Walker, are directly responsible for the inadequate funds for Wisconsin workers wages and social programs. That needs to change.
Marilena Marchetti, Chicago