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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

There and Back Again: A Journey to Walkerville

Recently, I spent two days and nights in Walkerville, Wisconsin.

Walkerville was a tent city set up in the tradition of the Hoovervilles of the Depression Era around the capitol in Madison.
(Hoovervilles were set up around the country by the unemployed, who lived in shanties, shacks, whatever they could build out of whatever materials were at hand. For more information, if you are interested, go to

The purpose of this modern-day Hooverville was a bit different - it was a protest, yes. Yet perhaps the more important intents behind Walkerville were, as I see them:

A. To hold vigil as the most radical, divisive, contentious budget in the history of our state was debated and ultimately, passed by our legislature.
B. To raise awareness of just what this budget and other bills under consideration or passed into law contain, and how they will harm the vast majority of Wisconsin citizens and small businesses.
C. Simply put, to BEAR WITNESS.

I went because I care deeply about my fellow citizens. I went because I have and will continue to research the source of much of the legislation that is being considered/passed and KNOW that at the very least, it is questionable. I would go so far as to say corrupt to its very core. I went to add my voice of objection and protest to those of people who also care deeply and passionately about our state.

I loaded my little car up with my tent, a borrowed sleeping bag, my trusty camera, a sign, and those items I thought I'd need for whatever time I could spend in Walkerville with my fellow citizens. I wanted to bear witness, I wanted to hear and share the stories of those who were there, I wanted to observe this unique moment in history.

"WOW" is barely adequate to describe my reaction to what, and more importantly, who, I found in Walkerville.

There were people from all walks of life in Walkerville. PEOPLE. PERSONS. INDIVIDUALS. Fathers, mothers, grandmothers, grandfathers, brothers, sisters, children. Homeless people and quite well-off people. Police officers, firefighters, farmers, teachers, small business owners, students, journalists. REPUBLICANS and non-Republicans (yes, there are Republicans who are part of this movement - really!). Christians, Jews, atheists. African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, European Americans. Union members and non-union members. Citizens of the United States and non-citizens - some of whom some of you may consider "illegal" (as one person commented, "Explain that to God!").

It is easy to fall into the trap of lumping all of us into one category - whatever you wish to call us. (Believe me, I have been called some terrible things as I traveled this path.) My hope is that the American people are smarter than that. In reality, we were a cross-section of our nation.

I will now endeavor to describe some of my encounters with individuals involved in this movement - people I met and spoke with.
Stik. That's the name he goes by on the street. Stik is a veteran of the Vietnam war. Now Stik is homeless. I met him as I sat in the rain, charging my cell phone and camera batteries using an electrical outlet on a light post. We talked fishing. We talked about the jobs he's held in the past. We talked about his family... his son, with whom he has recently rekindled a relationship.He had tears in his eyes as he talked about that son, and I did, as well. I asked him what his real name was, and he told me it was Matthew. Since he had to sleep in the street, in the rain and wind, his sleeping bag had gotten very wet... he said, "It weighs around 400 pounds!".

Matthew told me that he felt he was "in my element" on the street, as a homeless person - "and that's sad". We spent perhaps an hour talking. I gave him a hug when he left, and thanked him for his service to our country.

Matthew and I parted as he said he was going to, "Hop a bus to dry off".

Matthew was not the only homeless person I met. I slept in my tent outside of the church across from the capitol building, and many homeless people slept on the steps outside of the church. I heard them talking at night... about the things that you and I talk about. (Well, maybe there was a bit more "guy talk" than that!) When I was searching in my purse for a nonexistent quarter to feed the parking meter, a homeless gentleman came up and gave me one while folks dressed in expensive suits walked by.
Three attorneys from West Virginia, who were staying at the Best Western near the capitol. They'd come to Madison not for the protests, but on business. They asked what was going on, and I told them. Though concerned that they'd have difficulties getting to their destination on the following day due to the crowds, they were sympathetic to what is going on in our state and our efforts to counter it. One said, "People consider West Virginians a bunch of hicks". I know from my research that West Virginia is considered to have the lowest quality of life of any of our fifty states, but was assured that it was really a good place to live and work.
Bloggers... Bluecheddar, Appleton Wonk. I had the privilege of spending time with both of them, of watching them work, and even of being interviewed myself. They have become friends.
A member of the Capitol Police. He was out there among the protesters; he shared that he spent most of his days off there.

He said that many of his colleagues have found themselves in a very difficult and stressful situation. They support the protesters, directly witness the shenanigans at the capitol, and like all of us, are going to be directly affected by the budget and other legislation.

I encouraged him to take some time away to "de-stress". I could see the weariness in his eyes...
A state trooper who was present in the gallery of the Assembly. I had gone late (for me, which is about 9:30 pm!) to hopefully witness the debate over the budget. As luck had it, the Democratic members were in caucus and immediately proposed adjournment for the day when they emerged, so I didn't get to see much. The trooper came up to me afterward and said that he was actually happy that they'd done so - "It gives me one more day to contact my legislators and voice my concerns". He was extraordinarily kind and sweet.

As an aside, I observed that the "rules" of the gallery are quite selectively enforced. The more vocal of those present were chastised (quite rudely, in my opinion) and threatened with expulsion. Others said they'd had their cameras confiscated when their belongings were searched; I did not experience this. The "rules" state that no cameras, cell phones, recording devices are allowed in the gallery, and that observers must remain seated. I asked one of the staff members whether I could use mine, since there was not any activity at that time on the floor, and was allowed to (even though part of me felt that the selective enforcement was wrong, I did use both my camera and my cell phone). Another gentleman stood to relieve his back pain and nothing was said to him, while again, the more vocal protestors were told that they must remain seated in the gallery at all times.
A man who told me his name, but I remember only that friends called him "Wild Bill". I'll assume, then, that his name was Bill. Bill had started a Facebook page awhile back - "Real Men Don't Hit Women". It had grown enormously. Now he heads an organization that helps battered women and their children to escape from their abusers. He arranges help for them. I could not help but think of Governor Walker's attempts to defund shelters for abused women while he served(?) in Milwaukee. As a volunteer working with abused women/children, I've heard a lot of stories... and as a survivor of an emotionally/psychologically abusive relationship, I have great empathy for other survivors.

Another aside: I have heard one Republican legislator (Glen Grothman)* resoundingly condemn single mothers and wonder if he realizes how many are abuse victims who have escaped terrible, life-threatening situations. The new budget will make it much more difficult for many to attain educational and other goals, to obtain much-needed counseling, to care adequately for their children.

*He did this at a Tea Party meeting. Attendees applauded. I was appalled.
After two days in Walkerville, I reluctantly left. Though I hate to admit it, I'm not getting any younger and sleeping on hard pavement (many thanks to a dear friend who provided some padding!) is difficult. Wind kept me up most of the night as my tent was askew many times and kept blowing against me. I got wet and cold due to the rain that fell on my last night there.

I came home to healthy food (though Ian's pizza was great!), a warm, soft bed, bathtub, indoor plumbing.

I came home with a new appreciation for these things which are luxuries to Matthew, and to so many others.

I came home, I believe, a better person - more compassionate, more focused, more thankful, more determined than ever to continue doing what I can to right the wrongs. Perhaps my voice makes little difference - but I am convinced that OUR voices DO.

The people I met made me proud to be a Wisconsinite.

Thanks for reading. I can be reached at Twitter as @icefishinglady, on Facebook as Nancy Ames, via e-mail at Feel free.

1 comment:

  1. Brava! Written from the heart, Nancy...I am very proud to have known you since days in Wisconsin where we were young and not so prone to the cold concrete. :-)

    Keep the faith, and don't let the Bastards grind you down!