Protesters gathered at the Wisconsin Capitol on Wednesday to voice their opposition the state's controversial mining bill and the State of the State address by Gov. Scott Walker.
The Assembly is set to take up AB 426, which would streamline Wisconsin's mining permit process and clear the way for Gogebic Taconite to open an iron mine in north-central Wisconsin.
An evening rally held outside the State Street entrance to the Capitol featured Secretary of State Doug La Follette, former Department of Natural Resources secretary George Meyer, and Ojibwe elder Joe Rose, who explained his people's spiritual connection to the land where the mining would be conducted. Contamination of the region's water, he said, would have drastic effects on residents and crops. As he spoke, murmurs of disgust rose from the crowd.
"On this day, we can't put a price on the wild rice or any of the other resources that a hunter-gathering society would use," Rose said, "and that's why this mine is not going to happen."
Protesters waved signs bearing slogans such as "Leave Mother Earth Alone" and "Bury the Bill: Lake Superior holds 10% of the world's fresh water." Drums and chanting followed like the preamble to an epic charge.
Later in the evening, more protesters assembled inside the Capitol for the State of the State by Gov. Walker, clearly hoping it would be his last annual address from that office. Whistles, jeers and cries bounced around the walls in the Rotunda. No doubt used to the protests by now, the police officers seemed eerily calm.
In the minutes before Walker's speech, which started shortly after 7 p.m. in the packed Assembly chambers, the crowd sang and raised their signs. One showed Earth sitting uncomfortably close to a ball of flames; hovering in a black abyss next to the planet stood a smiley-faced creature with an extended hand bearing a peace sign, with the words "Have Some Respect!" written above it.
The poster's creator, Girard Gorelick, is an Environmental Studies major at UW-Madison. "The issue of the environment is one that rings deeply within me, because I think it extends beyond politics," he said. "It's an issue of being a living part of the community, and I believe what is at stake is something that all people face and need to face together."
Walking amidst the crowd in neon-colored vests, volunteers with the American Civil Liberties Union served as legal observers and keepers of the peace, seeking to ensure that authorities treated protesters legally. Earlier in the evening, there was a brief altercation outside the Capitol when a protester got into a tussle with a man trying to take a "Recall Walker" sign. No arrests were made, the ACLU members said, and the potentially violent episode was dealt with swiftly.
Stacy Harbaugh, communications director for the ACLU of Wisconsin, noted that police weren't enforcing many of the rules regarding protests. For example, forbidden balloons and musical instruments abounded. Several people sounded off on retractable plastic horns they'd snuck into the building. One man walked right past a police officer shaking cowbells. Another blew loudly into a kazoo.
Harbaugh pointed to the stadium-sized banners hanging over the second-floor railings. "According to the rules, signs are supposed to be held by people's hands," she said, "but those are being held by strings attached to weights."
As Walker's speech began, the clamor from the crowd was deafening. It was as if the governor was seeking to impose his own view of Wisconsin's recent history, and the people in the Rotunda would not bear to hear it.