Monday, February 21, 2011

Inside the Cheese Revolution: Poetry in Motion

Dancing with Liberty

(Madison, Wisconsin, February 19, 2011)

My friend called to say, “I’m waiting
at the top of State,” but I was across

the square, so I kept walking with the crowd
past the media stands where a few angry

men screamed through bullhorns while
we answered the call: Show me what

Democracy looks like, singing back over
and over, This is what Democracy

looks like, the marchers slowing to let
parents with strollers cross to the Capital,

past the costumed onlookers, past the sax
player giving us “Solidarity Forever,”

past the Harley-jacketed family, past
“Queers from Chicago” with raised fists,

Show me what Democracy looks like—
This is what Democracy looks like—

but at the top of State, amid thousands
of marchers, my friend and I could not

find each other, so I called and told her,
“Look for the man dressed as Liberty,”

and cut through the crowd to stand
beside a young black man in green silk

and a plastic-foam Lady Liberty crown—
Show me what Democracy looks like

This is what Democracy looks like
and he told me he was from Milwaukee,

and that his mother was a teacher,
and I told him I was from Alaska

and my father was in the service,
and all the while music was pounding

out from the Capital steps, and after
a few minutes we were dancing to

Michael Jackson, swaying and pumping
our arms, Show me what Democracy

looks like—This is what Democracy
looks like
—and somehow, my friend

never did find me, and none of us
who are hoping for justice know

whether we will find it, now or soon
or never, but what the heck, my friends,

isn’t this what Democracy looks like:
each of us, all of us, dancing with Liberty?

-Patricia Monaghan Used by permission.

Ten days ago, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker introduced a bill to strip workers of collective bargaining rights under the guise of reconciling a budget shortfall—one that did not exist several weeks ago, when Walker turned a budget surplus into a deficit by ramming through huge corporate tax benefits. The bill is stalled because, in a game-changing maneuver, fourteen Senators fled the state, denying the quorum needed for passage of the controversial law. And because tens of thousands have taken to the streets in protests, which are continuing after six days.

News reports have described “chaos” in the streets of Madison. I’ve been there, and I have to agree. According to chaos theory, small events can create huge and unexpected results—the so-called butterfly effect, wherein a butterfly flapping its wings in, say, Madison can set in motion a storm in, say, Ohio. (Or a storm in Egypt can inspire a similar storm in Madison.) I have seen the butterfly effect all week, as what could have been just another depressing legislative action ignited a storm of protest.

Another part of chaos theory tells us that systems can self-organize, and I have seen that in action too. Tens of thousands of people have been at the Capital this week—probably more than 70,000 today. No one is in charge. Dozens of groups, from unions to gay rights organizations, are involved. Hundreds of (mostly) young people sleep inside the Capital every night. Yet there have been, according to police reports, no arrests and fewer citations for disorderly conduct than at the last Badgers’ home game. Squads of young folk go around with big black plastic bags, singing a little song about not littering, asking us to pick up after ourselves, so the grounds of the Capital are surprisingly clean.

Chaos in the streets? I did see some people walking against the flow of traffic, but that only happened a few times. And really, the lines at the free bratwurst stand could have been better managed.

The whole thing has been like an immense street fair: drum circles, bluegrass bands, babies and dogs, costumes, wigs. Even today, when the Tea Party descended (about 2000 instead of the threatened 10,000), the festival atmosphere held. Nonviolence training had been offered all week. Omnipresent signs reminded us, “This is a Peaceful Protest.” Near the Tea Partiers, women stood with signs warning, “Do not feed the trolls.” When I left, after three hours of promenading around the square and chanting “This is what/Democracy looks like!” everything was peaceful as the Tea Party buses departed.

And there has been poetry everywhere. Not in the way you’d think: I haven’t seen any performance artists holding forth through bullhorns (though I may have missed that act). No, the poetry can be found in the whimsical, witty, outrageous, ostentatious, funny, punny, sexy, silly signs that the protesters carry. I have never seen a protest where words take center stage the way they have in Madison. Yes, there are pre-printed signs distributed by some of the organizing unions, but the majority are hand-printed and homemade. And they reveal a depth of creativity and passion that can only be fully enjoyed by walking slowly around the square, smiling and nodding and giving the thumbs’ up sign to your favorite, for hours at a time.

My favorites? Let’s see: the baby with “Poop on your bill” on his diaper. The dog wearing “If dogs had a union, I would join.” The many versions of the union slogan “Screw us, and we multiply.” The suggestive comments about Scott Walker’s relationship to the public: “Have a heart, Scott, use lube!” and “Not even dinner before?” Comments on Scott’s political allies: “Scott’s friends are Koch Heads.”

We saw the sorts of signs that suggest a major university nearby: “What is this, a plutocracy?” and “Walker is making Bedford Falls into Pottersville.” And one that could only be found in Wisconsin and doesn’t really make sense anyway: “I blame Favre.” (That would be Brett Favre, former Green Bay Packers’ quarterback who…but, well, enough about Brett.)

So many good signs! “I’m a farmer, I know manure” and a similar, if more mysterious one, “More cowbell, less Walker.” And many versions of “Walk like an Egyptian” and its corollary “Walker like an Egyptian.” References to the Tea Party including the brilliant, “Oh, I thought there would be crumpets.”

After two days of marching without signs, we weren’t going to the march today without doing our homework. So this morning we made two signs. Michael’s read “People’s Republic of Curdistan,” a reference to our state food, the cheese curd. Mine had Yogi brand ginger tea bags stapled to it and said, “I’m with the Herbal Tea Party.” We spent the day admiring others demonstrator’s signs, posing for pictures with ours, and dancing with a man dressed as Lady Liberty. Tomorrow is another day. Snow is predicted, and through the efficient rumor-mill we’ve heard that everyone is to bring shovels to dig out the Capital.

I have one sign, but I might have to make another. I’d really like to come up with something as good as that crumpets line.

Courtesy of Patricia Monaghan

Patricia Monaghan grew up in Alaska and now teaches literature and environment at DePaul University in Chicago; she also tends an organic farm and vineyard in Black Earth, Wisconsin. She is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Homefront (Word Tech Press), which considers the impact of war on families and from which this poem is taken. She is a Founding Fellow of Black Earth Institute, a progressive think-tank for artists striving to connect social justice, environment and spirituality.

Monaghan was on the panel “Giving Voice to the Silence/d” at Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness 2010.


Joseph Ross said...

A beautiful and necessary poem!

Janet said...

Thanks for the commentary and the poem. Crumpets, indeed!