Monday, April 4, marked the 50th day since protests started at the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison over a bill that would gut public employees' collective bargaining rights. Fifty days of Wisconsinites standing up and making their voices heard. Through hearing testimony, through meetings with their elected officials, through letters and emails to the governor's office. Through protests, through where they chose to sleep, through signs, through chants. Through showing up and taking part. Through recall canvassing and through adding their signatures to recall petitions. Fifty days.
When the protests started, I didn't know enough about the bill to know what its impact would be. I just knew that I was opposed to the idea of a budget repair bill that substantially changed workers' rights being rammed through the Legislature in a week, which was the reported Republican plan. I thought that, at the very least, it was an issue that deserved more time for the public to gather information and participate in the debate. So I showed up at the Capitol to make sure my voice was heard. My dad showed up. My friends showed up. People who I never even knew were interested in politics showed up. And it became something a lot bigger than any of us.
On February 16, when I stood in the stairwell leading to the room in which the Joint Finance Committee was about to vote, I yelled with the crowd "The people united will never be defeated," and I knew that this was different than anything I'd seen before and, possibly, anything I'll ever see again. As that first week unfolded, I educated myself about the contents of the bill and found I didn't at all like what it contained. My motivations changed from merely procedural to substantive -- I wanted to stop that proposal in its tracks. I wanted compromise. I wanted our elected officials to sit at a table and talk.
During that first week, which I mostly spent protesting with my dad, my former teachers and a few close friends, I felt a sort of hope that had been dormant for years. Hope that people joining forces really can make a difference. On Day 50, I stood on the State Street steps to the Capitol and listened as Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke about Dr. Martin Luther King's legacy on the anniversary of his assassination.
Jackson told the crowd that it was our responsibility to ensure that Dr. King lived on through us, that his dream was not ended with a single bullet. As Jackson spoke, I stood next to a fellow protester whom I had never met 50 days ago, but now consider a friend. Behind me, two protesters held a sign bearing the Martin Luther King quote: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
Our voices have been largely ignored by Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Scott, Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald and their allies. They tried to trample our hope by locking us out of the Capitol. But we brought our sleeping bags and blankets and showed them that it didn't matter if we slept inside or out, our opposition remained steady.
They held public meetings with minimal notice, trying to cut us out of the process. But we showed up in force anyway, and we refused to allow violations of Wisconsin's open meetings law to go unchallenged. They tried to make us go away by "passing" the legislation, but that night, we filled the streets surrounding the Capitol and continued our protest. And now, seven weeks after we started, we are still standing up and making our voices heard. Letting them know we don't like their budget repair bill, their infringement of our constitutional rights, or their way of "opening" Wisconsin for business by closing our open government.
We may not have gotten through to Gov. Walker or the Fitzgeralds or their friends yet. But those of you who have also devoted your time and your energy to this movement have gotten through to me in a way that is permanent and life-changing. For every moment in my past where I have questioned whether there are good people out there, the compassion and commitment of those raising their voices at our Capitol have proved 10 times over that there are people who care about each other. Care about perfect strangers. Care about Wisconsin. Care about democracy and open government. Care that things are done the right way, even when the proposal itself is abhorrent.
There have been days when my voice is not strong, but I've found that I can rely on others to carry the load. There have been days when I literally might have collapsed into a sobbing heap on the Capitol floor were it not for the kindness of friends and perfect strangers. There are days when a hug is an absolute lifeline to maintaining any sanity at all. Sometimes relief and renewal have come in the form of inspiration from the words of speakers at a rally and sometimes from perfect strangers who are also dedicating their time to the cause. I'll never be able to thank you all individually. I'll never be able to thank you all enough.
It's not enough, but I will forever be grateful for what the individuals involved in this movement have given me. And I plan to keep giving it my all until we take Wisconsin back.
Jenni Dye is a Madison-area attorney who has been actively involved in the protests at the Wisconsin Capitol, and has actively covered the events via Twitter. This op-ed was originally published on her blog.