Sunday, March 13, 2011

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

On Saturday (before the scintillating finals of the Louder than a Bomb Slam Poetry!), my family and I went to Madison to protest the actions of Governor Scott Walker, who pulled a fast one last week, ending collective bargaining in a swift act of legislative sleight-of-hand that required no legislative discussion.

His actions are sure to be challenged by the Wisconsin State Supreme Court. That body currently leans pro-Walker by a slim 4-3 margin, but an election of the critical swing jurist will be decided on April 5th, so many are hoping the balance of power will shift early next month. The Court could rule that the new law—particularly the way it was passed—is unconstitutional, according to the state constitution.

I have a few observations from our trip:
  1. It feels good to remember we are part of history. Let's reject "the great dates fallacy" which suggests that a few dates (the attacks on 9/11/2001; or the strikes on Pearl Harbor 12/7/41) are the only ones that matter. History is Now—and we are historical actors. Remember our discussion in class on this question: What would you do if you felt an injustice was being done? In this case I felt I had to act. My wife and I also felt it was important to show our children how democracy works—and we felt enormous pride that we were 4 of the estimated up to 100,000 people on hand.
  2. That number brings me to a second point. The estimate above comes from the Madison Police Department. But it was disputed by some conservative pundits—as major rallies always are. Here is a fascinating piece from our friends at On the Media on this topic:

    To me the exact number doesn't much matter.  (Almost everyone agrees it was a bigger gathering than any rally at Madison during the Vietnam War—and Madison was a campus hot spot of protest). In much of the coverage the dispute of the number muddies the importance of the rally—peaceful demonstrations in support of workers' rights.  
  3. Coverage of the events has been spotty at best. Usually the result is "broken news" if I may steal a phrase coined by James Fallows in his dissection of contemporary journalism. In that book Fallows laments the way most media polarize issues rather than seek truth. (All you junior themers, take heed!). 
  4. Here is one quick example: a story from the AP picked up by NPR and the Huffington Post. Examine the first two paragraphs carefully:
Clogging the Wisconsin Capitol grounds and screaming angry chants, tens of thousands of undaunted pro-labor protesters descended on Madison again Saturday and vowed to focus on future elections now that contentious cuts to public worker union rights have become law.

Protests have rocked the Capitol almost every day since Gov. Scott Walker proposed taking nearly all collective bargaining rights away from public workers, but the largest came a day after the governor signed the measure into law. Madison Police estimated the crowd at 85,000 to 100,000 people—along with 50 tractors and one donkey—by late afternoon. No one was arrested.  (Bold, mine).

"Clogging"? I felt the march was incredibly orderly and protestors followed a path created by police. (Truly, the 'P' Stairwell during passing period is a much more menacing scene). It was a Saturday, remember, so no legislative business was delayed and business was robust. Rather than angry screams, I heard pleas for change: "Hey, Ho, Scott Walker Has Got to Go" was the angriest chant I heard.  Note the numbers in the final paragraph as opposed to the misleading "tens of thousands" in the opening sentence. To say nothing of the "No one was arrested." Why would anyone be arrested? This is Wisconsin. The only arrest you might reasonably expect would be the arrest of a Milwaukee Brewer on charges of impersonating a major league baseball player. 

As a critical consumer of media, I saw that the article was written with the help of Dinesh Ramde, a stringer and UWM grad whose only previous work experience was in business.  His previous articles for the AP also leaned toward the sensational., so I shouldn't have been surprised, but my personal experience refuted much of his article.