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What's Behind the Recall in Wisconsin: Workers Fighting Back As Walker Dodges Questions About Corruption

The roots of the Tuesday's special election recall election unexpectedly began last winter.

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The 14 Senate Democrats fled across state lines into Illinois early Thursday morning, depriving Republicans of the quorum necessary to take a vote and pass the bill. This act by the Fab 14, as they came to be known, prolonged debate on the bill, and the longer it remained on the floor, the more Wisconsinites came to realize what was really in it. The Fab 14 allowed the fight to continue.

And it did. Each day of this first week, the crowds grew from around 1,000 on Monday to 25,000 on Wednesday to 40,000 on Friday. State residents who had previously paid little attention to politics and who had never participated in a protest were shocked as they came to recognize what Walker and the Wisconsin GOP were trying to do, and carpooled to Madison from towns and cities across the state. An unseasonably warm Saturday saw 70,000 people descend on the capitol square, the largest protests seen in Wisconsin since Madison was at the center of protests over the Vietnam War.

Ongoing Protest and Solidarity

But in contrast with the Vietnam-era protests and the Occupy protests to come, the Wisconsin protests were remarkably conflict-free. There were only a handful of arrests throughout weeks of demonstration and with hundreds of thousands of protesters. Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney famously told Walker his police department “would not be the palace guard” and refused to suppress the grassroots uprising. Off-duty law enforcement officers donned “Cops for Labor” T-shirts and marched alongside students, teachers, farmers, the elderly, and firefighters.

Walker had not planned it this way. He did his best to  divide and conquer , attacking collective bargaining rights for teachers, snowplow drivers, nurses, and other public employees, but exempting law enforcement and firefighters. It backfired.

“Firefighters are taught that when there’s an emergency you don’t run away from it, you run to it,” said Mahlon Mitchell, the president of the state firefighters union, at rallies throughout the protests. “This is the emergency. They’re trying to burn down the house of labor, and we won’t let them do it.” (Mitchell, the youngest and first African-American president of the state firefighters' union, is running for lieutenant governor in the recall election against Walker.)

Despite the peaceful nature of the protests and the solidarity between demonstrators and law enforcement, right-wing media went out of its way to portray the Wisconsin uprising as violent. Fox News’ Mike Tobin  claimed he was “hit” by a protester while taping a segment at the capitol,  but it did not happen  (I was there and can also attest that he was not hit). While discussing the Wisconsin protests, Bill O’Reilly spliced in footage from an altercation in California -- with palm trees in the background –- giving viewers the impression that Wisconsin demonstrators were violent. Palm trees became an enduring symbol in Wisconsin of right-wing spin and misleading portrayals of what really was happening in the state.

Protests continued throughout the following weeks. During the day, the capitol rotunda was filled with drumming and chanting, and in the evening, people snuggled into sleeping bags and curled up on the floor. Ian’s Pizza received orders for delivery to the capitol from all 50 states and dozens of countries around the world.

On Monday of the uprising’s second week, Walker accepted a phone call from a person he believed to be David Koch, who asked how the governor’s efforts to “crush that union” were going. The caller was actually Buffalo Beast blogger Ian Murphy, who  recorded the conversation . Walker had refused to return phone calls from Democratic legislators who wanted to negotiate, but he gleefully accepted a call from “David Koch,” and chattered for 20 minutes about how he considered planting “troublemakers” in the crowd, how he would not budge or negotiate, and how he was being courageous, just like Ronald Reagan. Walker also asked that Koch have “his guy on the ground” – presumably Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips – organize rallies and encourage people “to call lawmakers and tell them to hang firm with the governor.”