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February 22, 2011

Christopher Guess in Wisconsin: “We Love This Type Of Crowd”

University of Wisconsin student demonstrators camped inside the State Capitol Building. They are watching YouTube videos of the protests from earlier in the day. None of them knew each other before the protest began.

Photographer Christopher Guess is a native of Wisconsin and graduate of its university. After Governor Scott Walker introduced the new budget bill that would strip all collective bargaining rights from the state’s employee union, and increase their pension and health care fees, confrontation erupted and Christopher flew home from New York to document what may become a turning point defining the partisan divide in our country.

Early morning: A barefoot protester walks across the Rotunda hall; Capitol police guard one of the closed entrances as people wake up.

The police thus far have been correct and proper, with conflicting hints as to how they are deployed. In surrounding buildings there are police snipers, and Christopher noted that in order to enter the Capitol building, you have to walk around a phalanx of officers standing there as if to block the way. Except that they’re not actually blocking; they’re just standing there to be intimidating — if you are going to be intimidated — or not. The level of tension is low; perhaps less than what might be expected.

The unionized police are sympathetic to the protest because they too would lose their collective bargaining rights; if not immediately if they aren’t impacted by this specific law, then eventually as the precedent gets set. One policeman was reading an anarchist book that was given to him; another said to Christopher, “We love this type of crowd.”

Over the last four days, tens of thousands of people have rallied to demonstrate in Madison. Hundreds are sleeping in the sit-in inside the Capitol building. The legislative impasse seems no closer to a solution. I can’t remember a similar situation in recent memory when so many citizens occupied a public building as an act of political protest. What’s left of the Left has long bemoaned the lack of enough activism and defiance compared to Republican right-wing outrageousness. Could a new passion finally be slouching across Wisconsin, waiting to be born?

–Alan Chin

PHOTOGRAPHS by CHRISTOPHER GUESS

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