The working people of our state came together in a scene so moving you couldn't help but be swept up in it.
People like my schoolteacher neighbor and her Republican husband were galvanized to defend workers' rights. Marching into the capitol with the firefighters right behind her and her fellow teachers was "incredibly powerful," my neighbor said.
After the first week, when the teachers went back to work, the capitol was still jammed with chanting, drumming protesters.
Uniformed prison guards marched into the rotunda, their pounding boots and chants of "Union!"/"Power!" echoing off the marble walls to thunderous applause and high-fives from the crowd.
Outside the building, the crowd spilled down the capitol steps and along two sides of the block. Harley workers from Milwaukee joined municipal employees from La Crosse, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and hundreds and hundreds of firefighters marching behind the American flag.
Andy Voelzke, a Harley-Davidson machine operator from United Steelworkers Local 2-209 in Milwaukee, carried a sign that said, "Harley workers oppose union-busting."
"This is the first stop in a move, nationally, to undermine decades of rights that people have died for," he said.
"There is a misunderstanding about what public employees are," said Char Wagner, a snowplow driver from La Crosse and a member of the Service Employees International Union. She came down with twenty other La Crosse city workers to join the protests in Madison. "People don't know we have been making concessions and working with municipalities to save money. We haven't had a raise in three years."
In fact, union leaders offered to accept all of the cuts to pay and benefits the governor demanded, as long as they could keep their right to bargain. The governor declined.
"Scott Walker wants workers' heads, not their pocketbooks," Jesse Jackson explained, as he walked through the rally at the capitol, surrounded by uniformed firefighters carrying pro-worker signs.
"This is Ground Zero of the movement to fight for economic justice -- not just wait for economic calamity," Jackson added. "The workers are scapegoats."
Then, in the midst of the protests, Walker released his full budget. The state drew a collective gasp of shock. The "Take My Money, Not My Rights" signs seemed pitifully inadequate, as citizens absorbed the full extent of the cuts: $1 billion from public schools, and a provision denying municipalities the right to raise property taxes to make up the shortfall; huge health care cuts that will propel the disabled and elderly into nursing homes; gutting the protection of our public lands and waterways; ravaging Wisconsin's future.
Outside the capitol, the drumming and chanting reached a roar as Walker concluded his budget speech. I teared up, holding my first-grader's hand, as the crowd surged toward the doors. Protesters held up huge red letters, which glowed against the white dome in the afternoon sun, spelling out the word shame. A Wisconsin flag with a yellow "for sale" tag and a large American flag with corporate logos instead of stars flapped in the breeze.
To thunderous drums, the crowd chanted, "Whose House? Our House!" and, "Let us in!"
It took a week and two judges' orders before the governor reopened the capitol he had sealed off from the public.
By then, the fight in Wisconsin had launched a national movement. It started with the teachers. But it grew to include everyone fed up with corporate plunder and public austerity.
Within the span of a few short weeks, Walker became a national rightwing star and one of the most unpopular governors in Wisconsin history.
But his lasting legacy will be the movement he helped spark, fanning the flames of the prairie fire that started in Madison and reignited the labor movement across the nation.