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Wisconsin’s Uprising: A Guided Tour of the 11-Day Protest Encampment Inside the State Capitol in Madison

StoryFebruary 25, 2011
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Public employees, labor activists and students have been filling the hallways of the Wisconsin State Capitol for the past 11 days. Hundreds of people have slept inside the Capitol building each night. So many people are staying here that protesters have begun building impromptu dining areas, a lending library and a medic center. Democracy Now! senior producer Mike Burke and John Hamilton receive a tour of the building from an activist who’s stayed at the Capitol building for nine straight nights. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to convey to people the sense and the breadth of the people that are here. Democracy Now! senior producer Mike Burke came a few hours before we did yesterday to the State Capitol with John Hamilton, and he spoke to the public employees, the labor activists, the students, who have been filling these hallways for the last 11 days, each night hundreds of people sleeping overnight. During the day, the booming sounds of chants and drums fill the building. So many people are staying here that protesters have begun building impromptu dining areas, a lending library and a medic center.

Let’s go right now to just the feel of the Capitol here in Madison, Wisconsin.

HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: My name is Harriet Rowan, and I’m a senior at UW Madison. I’ve been here since the February 14th rally, and I’ve been here every night of the sleep-in. Yeah, I’m just a student who’s here in solidarity with everyone and also concerned about, you know, the future of our university and for the future for students all over Wisconsin.

MIKE BURKE: Can you take us on a tour of what’s going on inside the State House?

HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: Of course I can. I can show you everything. I’ve been here for nine days.

So, we’re walking right now on the ground floor of the Capitol, coming in the north entrance toward the amazing drum circle that’s been going on for about nine days, I think. I think today is day number 10, maybe. The inside of the ground floor rotunda is packed full of people. And on the first floor, which is one flight up from the ground floor from the entrances, is also packed with people. And on the second floor, people are looking down. Really, the focus is right here, the center of the ground floor. It’s where most of the energy comes from.

BARBARA CRANE: Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Barbara Crane. I’m the president of the National Federation of Nurses. We want to stand with our brothers and sisters for what we consider the genocide of the middle class of this country, and we’re not going to take it anymore! As a nurse, I know what a code looks like, and a code red is happening at ground zero in Wisconsin, and it’s got to stop now!

HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: An injury to one is an injury to all. And I think that that’s a point that a lot of people are getting out of this, that people see Wisconsin as like the focal point of where the attack on unions is starting right now and where it can be stopped. And that’s why it’s so important and so many people are giving us support from out of state and coming from out of state to support us. But at the same time, I mean, 95 percent of the people I talk to are from Wisconsin. So, I think the claims that they’re outside agitators are quite a stretch, and I haven’t seen much evidence for that.

MIKE BURKE: How big have been some of the crowds over the past week and a half?

HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: I’ve heard numbers as big as 100,000. Honestly, I spent about 23 hours a day inside the Capitol, so I don’t really even see the rallies all that often. But that’s what I’ve been hearing, you know, between 40,000, then 60,000, then 100,000, so…

MIKE BURKE: What else is on this floor?

HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: There’s a lot of stuff on the first floor. There’s lots of like legislative offices and stuff like that. As we’re walking, the walls are still covered in letters from people. And there’s — it says up on the wall that there are 10,776 messages posted up here.

MIKE BURKE: Who are these messages written to?

HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: These messages are written to Governor Scott Walker from various people and brought here through

Here’s one of the letters, and it says, “I am a registered Republican, and I oppose your bill as it is currently written. I would appreciate if during your daily radio addresses you told the whole story and not the biased portion you have been emphasizing. From Cathy Connolly of Grafton, Wisconsin.”

Right now we’re coming into the hallway that goes around the first floor rotunda. Let’s walk to the right. Ooh, I like this sign a lot. It says, “Hey, Walker, my UW education: $39,856. My Wisconsin teaching license: $19,240. Being able to protest your ignorance by sleeping at the Capitol: priceless. If you won’t participate in democracy, I will.” I like that sign.

MIKE BURKE: Now, I’ve seen this little side room. There are several sleeping bags on the floor. There’s at least one man in there sleeping right now.


MIKE BURKE: Can you describe the sleeping arrangements here? How many people are sleeping every night? Who’s actually taking part in this?

HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: The last I heard was two days ago they did a count, and it was about 400, a little bit more, I think. It’s hard to tell, because there are so many hallways and so many different areas. Really, people just find anywhere they can and put down their stuff. We’ve been trying to collect like bedding donations, so people can have like mats underneath them and sleeping bags and pillows and all that stuff. We don’t know how long we’re going to be staying, but we’re dedicated to stay as long as we need to.

MIKE BURKE: Alright, let’s head over to the information center.

HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: Wonderful. So the information station is a — kind of our motto is “got info, need info, share info. Knowledge is power.” And the idea of it is that the more people — the more things people know, the more organized we can be. In the first two nights, I realized — you know, on the TV screens up there, sometimes when the Assembly is meeting they show the Assembly and have it on speakers that are around the Capitol. And people can’t really hear what’s going on. So, like, every once in awhile something really important would happen, and no one would know. And so, that was one of the first things we started doing here was we’d write it up on this, our official low-tech Twitter. We actually have a real Twitter now, that we don’t use it very often, just for really important things. But we started this low-tech Twitter over here, which people thought was pretty funny. It’s just a white board, so we write up new updates. People need to know what’s going on if they’re going to be informed and really part — strategically part of the movement and really trying to help accomplish the goals.

MIKE BURKE: It sounds almost like you’re running a small little town inside the State House.

HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: Yeah, that’s what people have been saying. People really see it as like our own little community. We’re walking right now up to the food station in the North Gallery. Originally, the TAA was getting some food donations upstairs, and then the information station was getting food donations. We started getting so much that we really couldn’t handle it all.

UNIDENTIFIED: We’ve had a lot of support from the Madison community, around the state, as well as around the country. These bagels are actually donated by an organization in New York. I know the Teamsters have brought in brats. We’ve had organizations just sort of showing their support to everyone in a very human way. I mean, everybody has to eat.

HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: We also have a list of all the places that food has come from. One of the ones that I think is most interesting, Malawi, from Haiti, from Cairo, Egypt.

MIKE BURKE: Now, you’re saying that people in Egypt have donated food for the people here in Madison?

HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: Yeah, apparently, which is wonderful. I mean, I think that most people here agree that the people of Egypt really inspired people here. You know, there’s this whole issue with equating the two situations, which I think is a false equation, but there’s no doubt that we were — that people here have been inspired by that, to really see that a group of people without any official leadership can really get together and do something. And I mean, here, you know, there’s the different unions, so each — people who are affiliated with the unions have their own leadership, but there’s really not like one leader for the movement. And I think that that’s one of the things that makes it really cool.

MIKE BURKE: And what keeps you going?

HARRIET BLAIR ROWAN: Just the people, talking to people and seeing how amazing everything is and how people are working together. This is — I keep saying this is the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of, and people continuously tell me the same thing, like, “This is the most amazing thing I’ve ever been a part of.” And people really feel empowered individually to accomplish things, to do things. They see something that’s not being done, and they do it. And that’s really cool.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s University of Wisconsin student Harriet Rowan taking our own Democracy Now!’s Mike Burke around the Capitol.

John Nichols, The Nation magazine, seventh generation Wisconsinite, 10 seconds. What’s happening this weekend?

JOHN NICHOLS: This weekend, you’ll see the better part of 100,000 people in Madison, coming from every corner of the state. And in capitals across the country, people will rally in solidarity with them, all to say, “We want economic justice and democracy now.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, thanks so much, John. Tonight, Friday night, I’ll be speaking at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, the Union Ballroom. Tomorrow night, I’ll be at the University of Alberta in Canada, in Edmonton, speaking at the TELUS Centre. You can go to our website at for more details.

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