I’m almost certain that the last time Scott Walker appeared in an open public setting in Madison was during his inauguration eleven months ago. He comes and goes from his office in the Capitol through high security tunnels to a private underground parking garage a block away.
Throughout 2011 Walker has appeared all around the state, and everywhere he goes legions of protesters are there to greet him: at the State Fair; the opening of a highway visitors’ center; a ceremony at the oldest technical college in the nation; on one lake for the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of a state park, and another one for the opening of fishing season; when visiting businesses in Washburn, Waupaca, Fort Atkinson, and Rhinelander; and during photo ops at schools in Delavan and Milwaukee.
Traveling outside of Wisconsin, Walker has also met with rowdy protests. In Washington, D.C., New York City, and Kentucky he was welcomed with picket lines. Last month in Chicago, denizens of Occupy Chicago entered the fundraising event at which Walker was speaking and “mic checked” him. He recently cancelled an engagement at a fundraising event for Kansas Governor Sam Brownback when the Wichita/Hutchinson Labor Federation announced that it had organized thousands of people to protest his appearance.
But on December 2, Scott Walker had to face the Madison public in order to uphold the forty-year-long tradition of Wisconsin governors lighting the evergreen tree in the capitol rotunda. For the first time in twenty-six years, the tree is being referred to by the Governor’s office as a “Christmas” tree rather than as a “holiday” tree, a deliberate choice of words, according to Walker’s press secretary. (See this essay by Callen Harty for a treatment of the tree’s significance.)
Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs confirmed that Walker and his staff were so afraid of protesters that they moved the ceremony from noon to 8:15 a.m. This infuriated Democratic Senator Bob Jauch who said, “What a shame that Governor Walker ignored 40 years of tradition and instead of holding the tree lighting ceremony at noon he held it at 8:15 when the least number of citizens could attend.” Jauch and Representative Nick Milroy from Superior held a “Gift of the Tree” ceremony at noon.
During the early morning ceremony, the east wing of the building was cordoned off and patrolled by Capitol Police. Additionally, to ensure he was protected from the hoi polloi, Scott Walker surrounded himself with soldiers from all branches of the military.
Walker and his wife, Tonette, were joined by General Paul Dunbar of the WI National Guard and controversial Veterans Affairs Secretary John Scocos in a ceremony commemorating “163 years of service of Wisconsin veterans.” Several dozen National Guard troops were in the audience, as were young men from St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy choir who sang Christian hymns and carols.
In the doublethinking minds of the rightwing extremists running our state, nothing says “Christmas” like war. So much for the holiday as a celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace. In Fitzwalkerstan, the military is so firmly embedded in Christmas that according to Walker, the children who made the thousands of decorations adorning the tree did so, “mindful of that sacrifice of our military personnel and our veterans… It’s a great way to connect one generation to the next.”
Both Tonette and Scott Walker said they had joined some children in placing ornaments on the tree earlier in the morning. They thanked the kids, but gave no recognition to the prison inmates or their guards who spent the previous three days erecting, pruning, and placing the lights and most of the ornaments on the tree.
Several dozen protesters – among them many Veterans for Peace activists — attended the event carrying a wide variety of homemade signs. Most of the placards were variations on the theme of “Recall Walker,” although others like “Ayn Rand was an Athiest” and “My brother is an Iraq veteran and he does not support Scott Walker” were also displayed.
When the governor took to the podium, protesters silently turned their backs on him. They did not cause any disruption, though some couldn’t contain their groans when Walker said, “Tonette and I have a lot of feelings – we think about giving, we think about hope, we think about peace, but in particular we think about respect.” Within hours a clever Walker observer had created this dramatic visual rendering of Christmas in Fitzwalkerstan.
After the ceremony was over, 11-year old Emma Spaulding approached Walker as he shook the hands of veterans from different branches of the military. Dressed in Wisconsin red, she handed him an 8.5” x 11” sign that said “Forward Recall” over a cutout image of the state. Assembly Chief Clerk and ex-Marine Patrick Fuller snatched it out of Walker’s hand and threw it onto the floor as the governor told Emma, “Today is about veterans and nothing else.” Click here to see the video of the interaction.
In between the two tree ceremonies, Joseph Skulan organized a dramatic reading of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It took two and a half hours and a dozen or so people to complete the task. As the reading proceeded, a giant “RECALL” banner was unfurled over the second-floor balcony. The symbolic resonance between the novel and actually existing conditions in the state of Wisconsin were poignant, beginning with the concept of “recall” itself.
When Scrooge says, “If they would rather die, . . . they had better do it and decrease the surplus population,” one can’t help imagining those words dripping off the tongues of Walker and his Secretary of Health, Dennis Smith. If you are among the 65,000 people (29,000 of them children) about to be kicked off of Badger Care, the state’s medial assistance program, the image is powerful.
The Department of Administration, which has ascended to unprecedented levels of power under the Walker regime, just released a twenty-two-page document outlining new administrative rules for behavior in the Capitol building. Among them are requirements for groups larger than four people wishing to exercise political speech within the hallowed halls to apply for a permit 72 hours in advance, and to cover costs of any law enforcement expenses related to their event at the rate of $50/hr per officer.
These rules will go into effect at the height of the season of Advent. The ongoing struggles for free speech rights will likely intensify as the result of these outrageous edicts. It is clear that the administration is expecting trouble. They recently purchased heat sensing cameras to monitor the grounds, and the legislature passed a bill that makes it easier for Capitol Police to arrest and charge people for offenses that would otherwise merit a simple ticket.
I recently came across this definition of Advent that is astonishing in its relevance to our time:
“Advent is marked by a spirit of expectation, of anticipation, of preparation, of longing. There is a yearning for deliverance from the evils of the world, first expressed by Israelite slaves in Egypt as they cried out from their bitter oppression. It is the cry of those who have experienced the tyranny of injustice.”
Possessed of this yearning for deliverance, the RECALL banner folks had a little fun with the Capitol Police on Christmas tree lighting day. They were ordered to remove the banner before the noontime tree ceremony began, but they declined to cooperate. Seven police officers then removed the banner themselves. All of this was caught on video, which was masterfully re-edited by artist ladyforward1 into a holiday greeting from the Capitol Police to the people of Wisconsin.
It seems the more repressive the rightwing extremists get, the more determined and creative the people of Wisconsin become.
Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and as the President of the Dane County TimeBank.