What if they designated a free-speech zone and no one used it?
That's pretty much what happened Tuesday as President Barack Obama came to Madison to speak at the UW-Madison campus. The city announced that the 600 block of State Street would function as a "Peaceful Assembly Area," where people with signs and opinions could get their ya-yas out.
As it happened, though, no one used this designated area -- at least not that I saw, when I checked at 2:30 p.m. and again at 4:30 and 6, just before the big-name speakers -- Tammy Baldwin, Russ Feingold, Tom Barrett and the Big O himself -- took the stage.
Instead, the people of Madison established their own peaceful assembly area, a.k.a. free speech zone. They congregated at the intersection of University Avenue and Park Street, which people coming to the rally had to pass on their way into the event.
At least a couple of dozen people turned out for this face time with the masses, bearing signs and eager to engage. These were the people I most wanted to talk to -- the people who have the gumption to believe that they have something to say.
"Why?" repeats Judy Miner of the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice, when I ask why she's there with a "Peace" sign. "A lot of people see this as we're standing here."
Okay, but what difference does this make? Who disagrees with the goal of peace?
"This is a better one," says Miner, turning the sign around to show me the other side, which says, "Support Our Troops -- Bring Them Home." It's a message that challenges Obama and the nation to take a step away from war.
"Here in Madison, people are supportive of Obama," says Miner. "But he asked us to speak out -- he can't do this alone -- so we're here for him."
Like many others, Miner is disappointed by some aspects of Obama's presidency. But she also says, "Of course, I love him dearly."
Jeanne Breunig, part of a small group of anti-abortion protesters on the other side of University Avenue, is of the same opinion. She says she loves Obama, and prays for him: "Love the sinner, hate the sin."
What makes Obama a sinner, in her eyes and that of the Lord?
"I'm opposed to Planned Parenthood and he spoke to Planned Parenthood in July '07," Breunig tells me. "That says everything."
Really? Like what?
"Thou shall not kill," intones Bruenig, who lives in what she calls "the township of Middleton." "And he has rejected that commandment." Her sign says "Pray to End Abortion."
Jack Fernan, another member of this small group, says he's concerned not just about Obama but also Russ Feingold and Tom Barrett, a Catholic. Fernan is troubled by Barrett's pro-choice stance: "A Catholic cannot be that pro-abortion."
Credit Fernan for having the courage of his convictions, as well as admirable consistency. The member of Pro-Life Wisconsin is opposed not just to abortion but also to the death penalty and nuclear weapons. He says he's lived in "voluntary poverty" for years so as not to have to pay taxes to support evil activities.
I head back to the other side of the street, where local historian and activist Allen Ruff is holding a sign saying "Imperialist War Abroad, Class War at Home." He tells me the vast majority of people in Madison believed Obama was going to change the way the U.S. behaved in the world; but the truth is that Obama is "totally in line with the imperial project."
But isn't a sign about imperialism the sort of thing that makes ordinary American citizens hate the left? Responds Ruff, "No matter what sign you hold up before these believers here, you're not going to get any conversion experience."
The woman next to Ruff proves the point with an even edgier sign: "Bring Them the Fuck Home Already." The woman, who says her name is Tessa, says one passer-by was offended, saying her sign wasn't nice. Her rejoinder: "I don't think war is nice, either." Oh, snap!
A woman in the throng of humanity passing by has a huge sign saying, to paraphrase, that Rosa Parks sat so that Barack Obama could run. She doubts she'll be allowed to take it inside but she's bringing it along anyway: "I'm a soldier. I'll keep going till they tell me no."
Suddenly, there is a different small group of anti-abortion protesters, on the same side of the street as the anti-war folks. All are from Watertown, Wisconsin. One, Tracy Bargo, has a sign that says "Can We Survive Two More Years of Hope and Change?" on one side and "Organisers for Amerika" on the other.
I ask why she spelled organizers wrong. She says it's the European spelling and she used it "because I hear we are imitating them [the Europeans] in more and more ways. And soon our language -- our English -- will be European."
One of her two companions, Ann Holden, says abortion is "only one" of the issues that have brought her to Madison to protest Obama's visit. She's also concerned about the nation's "gradual descent into a lack of respect for the individual."
Can she give some examples?
"Number one is the abortion issue," Holden admits. But there's also the undermining of the American family. For instance, now a child too young to legally consent to sex can get an abortion without the parent's permission.
Bargo agrees, chiming in: "I consider it an affront when taxes are imposed on us for things we feel are morally wrong."
Like what? "Health care."
Health care (reform) is morally wrong? "Absolutely."
But there's more. Both Bargo and Holden are bothered that federal tax dollars are going to Planned Parenthood, which they believe encourages minors to have sex. And both feel the anti-family, pro-abortion juggernaut is working.
"It's against the law to teach abstinence in Wisconsin schools now," says Bargo. "Did you know that?"
Actually, I didn't. The controversial state law that passed last year actually said schools that teach sex education must promote abstinence and teach about contraception and how to prevent getting sexually transmitted disease.
Alan Reinhard, the third member of this party, is also just sick about abortion. "Back in the old, old days, people used to sacrifice their babies to the gods -- for a good harvest, for health and welfare," he explains. "Now we are sacrificing babies for a larger car, an SUV, for a bigger house, our personal gain."
He sizes up the mindset of the modern abortion enthusiast: "I don't want to put up with this drooling kid who's going to throw up on me."
Not surprising, the trio oppose embryonic stem-cell research, though they jokingly look over their shoulders before saying so, this being Madison and all. "It takes dead babies," says Bargo. "It takes the intentional killing of babies."
Yes, she is aware that many major stem-cell lines come from fertilized embryos that were going to be destroyed. But, she says, "Is that a logic to be followed?" Apparently not.
The largest and arguably most pointed sign I saw -- still being brandished when I checked in again at 5:30 p.m., after stopping by the crowd overflow section on Bascom Hill -- was that of Joe Weinburg, active in the Madison left. It said: "Do you think the thousands of dead Iraqis, Afghans and Pakistanis prefer being killed by the actions of a man with a Nobel Peace Prize rather than the actions of an alcohol and cocaine brain-damaged cretin, born without a moral center to a vampire and the blood-soaked man who ran the CIA?"
I process the sign's message before asking Weinburg, "So Obama is an improvement?"
"About a quarter inch," he says. With fans like these...
Weinburg, a mostly out-of-work carpenter, also concedes that Obama is better than John McCain, who he calls "out- and-out evil."
Weinburg's main issue is war, which he says "has nothing to do with what they pretend it's about." What war is really about, he says, is "killing off brown kids," enriching military contractors and inflating war-makers' egos (among other things): "It gives men better erections than Viagra."
What would Weinburg do if he were president? First, "Get out of war," then "tax the hell out of the rich."
By the time I join the line, it's much too late to make it into the actual event. I hang out on Bascom Hill with the overflow crowd for a while, then head back to the office to listen to Obama's speech online.
As I'm waiting to cross University Avenue back to my bike, two college-age girls start to enter the crosswalk, one of them saying -- hand to God -- "Yes we can."
Then she realizes the "Don't Walk" sign is on and cars are coming. "No we can't," she announces. "No, we can't."