February 25, 2011

Christopher Guess in Wisconsin: Truly the People's House

These Capitol Police, the last line of defense in protecting the Governor’s press conference, have three thousand protesters and two more rows of police in front of them.

This is a second report on the protests taking place inside the Capitol Building in Wisconsin. Photographer Christopher Guess is a Wisconsin native and graduate of its university. In this post, Christopher documents how the face-off between Governor Scott Walker and citizens, students and state employees had, by mid-week, settled into cohabitation.

Because protesters and security have been working cooperatively, the drill in the picture above is for the officers to look intimidating although they know there is little danger.  What is more significant about the photograph is the fact that the officers shown are exempt from the Governor’s play to strip unions of their collective bargaining rights and these men will retain that ability however the legislative battle plays out.

One things that’s notably about this photo, and the sign, is how it presents a populist counterpoint to the impression — up to the mid-term elections, at least — that the “Tea Party” has been the embodiment of American discontent.

Currently, “the people’s house” feels as much like a university student union as the government’s legislative home.

The Wisconsin Capitol is modeled on the US Capitol building. There is a central rotunda with balconies connecting four  wings. The Governor’s office is on one wing, mirrored by the State Supreme Court, the Assembly and the Senate.  The protesters have become a regular fixture in the building with active demonstrations going on the whole time.

Republican State Assembly Members pray before the opening of a three-day long marathon session, fighting off a Democratic filibuster, and over 100 Democratic amendments to the Governor’s plan.

While protesters are prevalent and active in the hallways, on the balconies and even in a conference room upstairs, the legislative process grinds on. Perhaps the only thing not dividing Wisconsin right now is an allegiance to the community owned, World Champion Green Bay Packers.

The TAA, with its organizing, technology and social networking savvy, has been the central organizing hub of the protest.

This conference room upstairs in the Capitol Building has been the unofficial second headquarters for the TAA — the Teachers Assistant Association.  In Wisconsin, teacher assistants carry the same labor rights as state employees. The TAA has played a critical role in the organization of the protests running bus shuttles, doing food distribution, coordinating with police to prevent removal of signs and posters, organizing petitions, etc. Although they just lost their 24/7 access to this conference room where members where working and sleeping, they remain the “central brain” of the protest activity.

Speakers pipe in audio to the conference rooms directly from the Assembly session.  Here, a TAA member tries to make out what’s going on in the session downstairs.

As Christopher explains:

“By definition, a union of teachers assistants means a membership of younger people and constant fresh energy as new people breaking into their field are always moving through the organization.  The TAA has played a central organizing role because its members understand the new media, social networking, and the younger demographic better than the old line unions with older membership.”

The operation is fully stocked with food, water, first aid supplies.

“It’s inspiring,” Christopher continues.  “Food is just outside the doorway and it’s free for everybody.  There is even a miniature medical clinic set up.  For people experiencing minor injuries or illnesses, the  Police are actually taking people there rather than to ambulances.  But, with the TAA having just lost access to their “control center” inside the building after 8pm and before 6am, the pressure is mounting.”

— Michael Shaw


Previous post: Christopher Guess in Wisconsin: “We Love This Type Of Crowd”

You can follow the efforts of the TAA at DefendWisconsin.org.

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