Turning up the heat on Paul Ryan

August 25, 2011

Andrew Cole reports on an occupation of a Wisconsin Republican's office.

SHANON MOLINA wants answers. "I'm tired of struggling to support my family," she says. "I'm tired of not having a decent job that provides benefits, and I'm tired of being ignored by my congressman."

Shanon requested a meeting with her congressman, Rep. Paul Ryan, who represents a district in Southeastern Wisconsin, to voice her concerns alongside several other unemployed and underemployed constituents. Ryan is chairman of the House Budget Committee and the chief architect of the new Republican majority's right-wing proposals on economic policy.

After repeatedly being denied a face-to-face meeting with her representative, Shanon and six others--now known as the Ryan Seven--sat down in his office to wait. And they won't leave until they speak with Ryan personally.

On Thursday, August 18, the Ryan Seven participated in a demonstration outside Ryan's constituent services office in Kenosha, Wis., organized by the labor-community group Wisconsin Jobs Now. Over 100 people picketed Ryan's office, demanding answers about the unemployment crisis. At the mid-morning point, several moved inside and asked to meet with the congressman.

Paul Ryan's constituents wait in his Kenosha, Wis., office to meet with the congressman
Paul Ryan's constituents wait in his Kenosha, Wis., office to meet with the congressman (Heather Kleinberg)

"Our goal is a face-to-face," said Scott Page, one of the Ryan Seven. "I just want a few minutes to explain to Paul Ryan how his policies are hurting me, directly, and put a face to this unemployment statistic we always hear." They remained in Ryan's office until it closed. The seven attempted to stay in the office past closing, but voluntarily left when police arrived. They vowed to return every day until Ryan agreed to the meeting.

On Tuesday morning--the fourth day of the sit-in--Ryan's staff and the building owner turned up the heat. "We were told we had 15 minutes to fill out a request form for a meeting, and then we had to leave or be arrested," Molina said. "Apparently our presence is distracting them from helping other constituents."

Ryan's office called the Kenosha police, but they declined to respond since the demonstrators weren't committing a crime by sitting in the office. Staff also posted notices claiming all video, photography and audio recording inside the office was prohibited.

By the next day, the doors were locked, and demonstrators were denied access to Ryan's office altogether. Molina was not deterred. "Inside or out, we aren't leaving!"

The demonstrators were also informed late Tuesday afternoon that only paying tenants were permitted to use restrooms. Police arrived in the afternoon and let protesters know the building owner had decided to restrict parking, and that demonstrators' vehicles would be ticketed or towed. When asked on what authority the police could prevent access to a public office, they responded that the lot and building are private property, and the landlord has the right to do as he pleases with it.

Despite the intimidation, morale remained high. The demonstrators are prepared to be arrested if their demand isn't met. "There's nothing wrong with a little civil disobedience," said Molina. The police have yet to make any arrests, but if necessary, the protests may escalate.

MOLINA, A mother and longtime resident of Kenosha, was laid off in 2008 after 10 years as an administrative assistant. She experienced 18 months of unemployment, was briefly employed again this year, and then was laid off again. "[Scott Page] and I are already tapped out on our unemployment benefits. I wasn't employed long enough to qualify for them again. I'm at the end of my rope, and Congressman Ryan needs to understand that," she explained with tears in her eyes.

Her desperation quickly turned to anger as she focused on her economic situation. "We're living on $353 a week. That's as much as Paul Ryan spends on a single bottle of wine!"

Genevive Klimala, another member of the Ryan Seven, spoke to her frustration with the lack of prospects for trained alcohol and drug abuse counselors like her:

I've done everything from spin wrenches to spin on a pole...There just aren't any jobs here for someone with my degree. I really wanted to get a job helping people. Instead, I'm considering going back to school for criminal justice so I can get a job locking people up.

Despite being praised for their courage, the demonstrators remain modest. "This isn't brave, this is comfortable," said Phil Hamey, a veteran of the civil rights and antiwar movements. "You know what I think is brave? Those people in Syria and Libya. I've been on the wrong end of a gun barrel more than once, so this is nothing."

Molina called for a nationwide movement of sit-ins at congressional offices. "If you're unemployed or underemployed, get the classified ads and go ask for a meeting with your congressman, your state senator, your state representative, whoever. And if you're denied, sit down until you get it."

On Tuesday, a contingent of demonstrators began a similar action at Ryan's Racine office. A Janesville demonstration was scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday afternoon.

Molina insisted that those considering direct action shouldn't be afraid:

We put [elected officials] on this pedestal. But they're just people from our communities that we choose to represent us...Paul Ryan went to college like I did; collected Social Security benefits to get through school, just like I'm relying on public services now; and he's not that much older than me. He's just a guy from Janesville, so there's no reason to be scared of him...We elected him and we can kick him out.

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