I'm going to make a break from past practice and use part of my allotted space as a scrupulously objective reporter to state a rare personal opinion: I've really missed this.
It's been more than two weeks since I stood in a crowd of tens of thousands of people, singing songs and carrying signs (mostly say hooray for our side). And I've missed it.
I hate nightclubs and can't stand even being in a crowded elevator. But I've missed this. The humanity. The humor. The hope. Maybe it's all an exercise in futility. But that's not how it feels.
This was not a nice April day. It was cold with a harsh wind. At times a few raindrops fell. No one seemed to mind.
A truck parked on the Main Street side of the Square blared the O'Jays song "Money, Money, Money, Money (Money)." One guy walking past was laughing so hard he leaned on his companion for support. A large group of protesters, including Madison mayor Dave Cieslewicz, made their way past.
The main gathering was on the State Street steps, starting at 5 p.m. I'm no expert at crowd estimates, but I'd say there were slightly more people the crowd that occupied this same space on Feb. 15, the first truly large protest. I think that crowd was estimated at 10,000, by the state Department of Administration, which sucks at crowd estimates.
Michelle Shocked performed a soulful set. At 5:35 as she was singing a song with a chorus that included "joy, joy joy, hallelujah," the sun came briefly and inexplicably out, and people cheered. Later in the song a group of bagpipers accompanied her on stage. She was having the time of her life.
At the end of Shocked's set the crowd chanted "Thank you!" a few enthusiastic times. Then there was a pause as the stage was being readied for the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Someone began a new chant: "What's disgusting? Union busting!" Ah, just like old times.
Jackson took the stage at 5:56 p.m. The timing was not accidental. Today is the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in Memphis, Tennessee. Jackson, then a young man, was standing next to King when it happened, at 6:01 p.m. As the time coincided, Jackson invoked that memory, as well as the memory of how King's enemies planted provocateurs in marches, just as Gov. Scott Walker talked about doing in Wisconsin.
"We would not allow one bullet to kill a dream," Jackson said, a dream he labeled "King Democracy," including the "great tradition of justice, jobs and fairness." The bagpipes broke into a rendition of "Amazing Grace." I hate the song "Amazing Grace." If there's any possible way to make it worse, it's with bagpipes. But I didn't mind. No one did.
Jackson resumed speaking, and hit his stride. All of his earlier ruminations suddenly coalesced into poetry.
"Let nothing break your spirit," Jackson thundered. "Let nothing break your faith. This land is your land. We must not give up on each other. Today we commemorate the crucifixion of Dr. King. Tomorrow, we celebrate the resurrection."
By tomorrow, of course, he meant Election Day, a theme that became the focal point for the rest of his remarks. "We'll get our jobs, we'll preserve our democracy," Jackson told the crowd. "Keep hope alive. Vote! Vote! Vote! Keep hope alive. Vote tomorrow. Come alive, April 5." It even rhymed.
There was one more musical interlude, as Jackson led the crowd in singing "We shall overcome," including a chorus that said, ""Black and white together." I love this song and sang along.
Jackson closed with another appeal to vote. As he put it, "Vote your power. Vote your hopes and not your fears." He led the crowd in three chants of "This is what democracy looks like." Then he said, in all seriousness, "Go to work."
People chanted "Thank you!" as Jackson finished. The next speaker was a unionist who took the microphone to say, "We pick up your trash in the city of Madison." He got a "Thank you!" chant as well. Everyone was on the same page, and anything was possible. That's how it sometimes seems, on the day before an election.