Show me what democracy looks like

No matter what your opinion is about labor unions, public sector benefit plans, or Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, you have to agree on one thing: America is a great place to be unhappy.

I joined more than 70,000 protesters circling the capitol in Madison on Saturday, Feb. 26, to protest the bill that would cripple public sector unions in Wisconsin. A steady snow fell as the temperature hovered at 15 degrees. Drummers tapped out beats in rhythm with the protesters’ chants.

But the scene wasn’t threatening. A few couples pushed babies in strollers. Other people brought their dogs. Union groups lined the road and offered the shivering protesters free coffee, water, pizza, and sandwiches, all given with a smile and a cheery comment: “Thanks for coming here today.”

“No, thank you,” each protester responded.

It was the politest mob I’ve ever seen.

No riots. No fear of being shot. No fear of being arrested just for being there.

Tens of thousands of people concentrated within a few city blocks marched slowly, carrying signs that were clever or poignant or downright funny. Only a few signs held extreme words. There was a sense that this was a cause worth fighting for but that the fight should be peaceful.

In some other countries, elections and votes are marred with violent protests – in some, disenfranchised citizens aren’t allowed to protest. But here in the United States, we can march on the front steps of a government building without being shot. We can inundate our leaders with e-mails and phone calls without being targeted for retribution. We can shout at our lawmakers without being arrested.

Of course, some people in WIsconsin have been arrested when their protests stepped outside the bounds of the law or threatened public safety. But the arrests weren’t vindictive.

Because Scott Walker is a democratically elected leader and because the democratically elected state Senate is predominantly Republican, it’s likely the protesters’ efforts will be in vain. In fact, the state Assembly – also with a Republican majority – has already passed the bill.

But it’s not the end of our democratic options. In future elections, we are free to vote against legislators we disagree with. We can donate money to their opponents and put up signs on our front lawns declaring our affiliation with our favored candidates.

And we’re free to keep marching.

So I disagree with some TV commentators who have negatively characterized the Wisconsin protests as “temper tantrums” or “creating chaos.”

This is what democracy looks like.