I joined 1,300 people in the Barrymore Theater last night. This crowd needed absolutely no assistance in warming up. While we waited for start, one audience member in the front in green face paint and a fright wig, stood up to lead the chant “This is what Democracy looks like”, while a cowbell waving member clanged along.
The crowd was noticeably over 30-years-old and mostly white–a demographic that fits with Madison, Wisconsin. However I feel qualified to state that the mix of cultures and styles brought to the Barrymore by the Ed Schultz crowd was uniquely non-elitist and non-cocktail swilling – as the downtown Madison crowd is characterized by the local GOP.
The format of the evening was billed as “town hall” with microphones at either side of he theater, and so I expected to hear hours of testimony. Instead, we heard a series of brief pointed speeches followed by a conversational exploration of the events that have transpired in Wisconsin since February 11 of 2011 when Scott Walker unveiled Wisconsin Act 10.
The crowd was stacked with those absolutely committed to jumping through all of the hoops required to get there – and thus -the energy level they brought to the evening was red hot.
To guarantee entry into this event, hundreds waited in line first at noon, and then again later at 4:30PM, and following, they waited inside the theater. We listened first to John Nichols, Stu Levitan, Ruth Conniff, and a representative from PR Watch, and finally, we saw the man of the hour, Ed Schultz.
I didn’t count how many times Ed was thanked for being in Madison broadcasting live outside the Capitol building on February 16 – the first national figure to do. But the most moving thanks was delivered by Senator Kathleen Vinehout who seemed to be holding back a well of feeling in order to speak.
While she began, we had broken out into what those outside the state call “the Wisconsin thank you”, which is merely the chant of the words “thank you”.
She gave us a few minutes, and then controlling the conversation again said, “You see, this is the relationship we have with our constituents, and this is the relationship people should have with their press.” Ed Schultz was moved and humbled in response to a simply overwhelming scene.
Ed talked politics in his folksy style with a few more jokes than what we find in his regular shows, but he also moved into serious territory:
“So, we have awakened this country to this fight for the middle-class in America …now there’s people sittin’ at the kitchen table looking at each other and doing the math and what this means to them and then they think about what they can hang onto – what they’ve worked for for all these years. And they’re seeing that this is the divide in the country. This feeling at the kitchen table that middle class Americans are feeling right now? There are too many with so much wealth, that’ve been so greedy and played the political decisions – they don’t have those kind of conversations – they don’t have those kinds of feelings in their household.”
He called the leaders on the right “selfish” and “radical”. One man from the audience yelled out “fair share”. Ed asked him what he said, and he reaffirmed it. Ed responded, “Does that exist anymore?”
The audience: NO!
He asked again, “Does that exist any more?”
This call and response style – a dance with the audience which was at the edge of its seat and more and more moving to standing ovations – to chants – danced dangerously close to the energy of a super bowl touch down –without losing its head. When Senator Taylor was momentarily at a loss for words and was recalling legislation – a woman from the 1st row jumped in and yelled out statistics. She was then invited to the front to relay her information to the microphone. That sort of eruption of information happened more than once. I had the thought first, “These people know their shit.” and I realized I was in the presence of a living, shouting, wikipedia of information on the Wisconsin movement - these people have been as obsessed and as worried as I’ve been.
Here in Wisconsin, the questions “Why hasn’t Obama come here?” and “Should he?” have been put to Wisconsin Democratic leaders repeatedly by journalists. These are two of the most commonly debated questions heard in the streets and in any political discussion.
The same day as this town hall meeting, Obama delivered a speech which seemed to veer away from his conciliatory tone. (from my audio recording)
“The President today, the President today said…”
The audience already begins to interrupt him with cheering…
“…we do not need another extension of the Bush tax cuts…”
And cowbell ringing, jump up out of the seat, whistling, hooting applause followed.
“The President said today that medicare will not to to a voucher program on his watch.”
“…and there are many Americans, including myself, who wanted the President to be at “Ground Zero”. He arrived today, and I think he was inspired by what Wisconsinites did and have done in recent months. A line is now drawn in the sand. We know where the President stands. Now we gotta help him stay there.”
One woman in the crowd yelled about Obama: “He’s back!”
In the clear light of the morning after, without the throngs of people around me, writing this, I thought only, “I hope so.”
Then, I heard this on the radio:
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Va. is is enraged by Obama’s speech.
I applauded at home, alone, standing in my kitchen. Frankly, I don’t know if Obama is “back”. But I do have enough good sense in me to know when to applaud. And that feeling that we are not alone – that there are many standing with me, is still there. That is in some way due to Ed Schultz.
Thank you for being here first, Ed Schultz.
Thank you for being here – in Wisconsin- last night.
Recordings from the event will appear on local FM 92.1 The Mic throughout today online and on th eradio, according to announcements. Other links:
[This A.M. I had a name-switch typo, which has since been corrected.My apologies. I seem to be more typo-prone--I haven't slept well since the April 5th election. ]