Sunday, August 24, 2014

Political Protests in Manama and Madison: It's a Small World After All

On February 17, 2011, The New York Times ran two major stories that have a common denominator: angry protesters. Bahrain and Wisconsin are not typically thought of together.  Bahrain is a small kingdom in the Middle East whereas Wisconsin is a large republic in North America. In mid-February, 2011, both were engulfed in protest in their respective capital cities.

In Manama, Bahrain, the army took control on February 17th; on the following day, the military would use automatics against a group of protesters. Before the army had taken control of much of the capital city, the police had opened fired on protesters camped in Pearl Square--that occurred a day after the king had said that the protesters could use that park to express themselves. According to The New York Times on February 17th, "As the army asserted control of the streets with tanks and heavily armed soldiers, the once- peaceful protesters were transformed into a mob of angry mourners chanting slogans like 'death to the king,' while the opposition withdrew from the Parliament and demanded that the government step down."  

In short, violence had turned on peaceful protest, turning the capital city into a war zone, and that situation was repeated the next day.  From the standpoint of the protests in Madison on February 17th, the scene of carnage in Manama would have been difficult to imagine. My thesis is that while the differences are real, they should not be overdrawn. The people in Manama and Madison are human, all too human, after all, hence they are fully capable of going well past the confines of polite society into the state of nature yet with vastly more interpersonal contact.

In Madison, protesters had begun protesting on February 16th. I happened to be in Madison on that first day and I witnessed the protesters make their way to the Capitol. The next day, the protesters were congregating in the rotunda at the seat of government when the thirteen Democratic senators walked out of the Senate (and in fact out of Wisconsin). With the majority party one person short of a quorum in the Senate, the pending bill that would reduce benefits for public employees and restrict their unions' collective bargaining rights on wage negotiations was effectively in limbo. The New York Times reported that day, "Walker’s plan was upending life in the capital city."  On the 18th, the paper reported that on the previous evening as the rallies against the bill grew, "(p)eople screamed: 'Shut it down! Shut it down!' Drums pounded. Students, some barefoot, danced." This description is more revealing than one might suppose at first glance.

Even though the protesters in Madison can be distinguished as a group from the protesters in Manama, the protesting Wisconsinites should not be treated as a homogeneous mass. In fact, the presence of out-of-state university students broadened the protest beyond Wisconsin. Furthermore, although some of the students were doubtless deeply involved in labor issues, many of the students I saw on their way to the protest on the 16th looked excited, like they were going to a rock concert, rather than angry or even into political activism. Some even had little pictures painted on their faces. Later in the week, a large drum circle took shape inside the Capitol. At times protesters seemed more concerned by what they regarded as insufficient attention on them by the national media than by their cause. It's all about me! Watch me! That is not much of a revolutionary attitude.

The more disgruntled, personally-invested protesters (i.e., actual workers) might have been mobilized by the unions that would receive less in union dues if public workers had the right to withhold union dues (a feature of the proposed bill). In other words, greed rather than anger might have been motivating some of the protest organizers even if most of the unionized protesters were motivated by principle. Also, in addition to teachers attending on principle, schools may well have organized their students to attend as a group. 

Therefore, lots of agendas funneled into the protests in Madison that February. My point is not that the protesters were somehow fakers or imposters relishing attention or a festive party; rather, my point here is that protests are actually rather heterogeneous even though they look like one fuzzy blob from a distance (i.e., through the media).

Moreover, it might seem like the protests in Madison were quite different from those that were taking place in Manama at the same time even though a closer examination uncovers some underlying commonalities based on human nature and how it plays out in terms of political organization.

To be sure, in terms of being different, shutting down the Senate temporarily is a far cry from a revolution wherein an entire government is to be replaced. Treating the passage of a bill as though it were a matter of life and death smacks of hyperbole. Responding to the flight of the democratic senators, for example, Sen. Scott Fitzgerald said, “This is the ultimate shutdown.” Well, no, I don't think so, Senator; the ultimate shutdown was going on in the political protests in Tunesia, Egypt and Libya. What was going in Wisconsin was not revolution even if that language may have served the protesters' various purposes, including more attention and importance than warranted.

The difference between the two protests can be appertained by contrasting college students in Madison dancing barefoot in a heated building in February while protesters in Manama were facing live gun-fire. Shouting "Shut it down!" as if a government were somehow obliged to close because a group of people demand it is not like screaming "Stop shooting at me!!!" From the vantage point of an American, protesting for a real revolution seems like a world, or planet away from protesting to stop a particular bill from becoming law. In Madison, the likelihood that the protests would turn massively violent was doubtlessly perceived on both sides of the issue as being so remote that protesters were allowed inside the building housing all three branches of the Government of Wisconsin.

Whereas the police and military in Manama were mobilized on February 17, 2011 to remove protesters from a city park, the Wisconsin National Guard (Wisconsin's military) was nowhere to be seen as protesters flowed into the seat of Wisconsin's government in Madison. Even when the capitol police wanted to clear the building for cleaning on the Sunday of the second week, the protests were able to remain. In fact, Wisconsin's chief executive and head of state had notified the Wisconsin National Guard to step in to perform vital governmental functions should the public employees go on strike. In short, the images of college students dancing barefoot even as they are reported to be "angry protesters" is difficult to reconcile with the pictures of blood-soaked protesters in the Middle East lying on cement or being carried to hospitals. I wouldn't blame one of the real protesters for shaking one of those students and saying, "Hey, this is serious! We are not playing!" 

Why were the protests in Madison so different on the surface from those in Manama? Why did the drama turn Madison into "a political circus," according the USA Today, while protesters (and even the medics trying to help them) were getting shot at in the Arab Spring? My knee-jerk explanation is that the tradition of democracy and protest had been so engrained in Wisconsin's political ethos by 2011 that no Wisconsinite seriously worried that the Capitol Square would turn into a real battlefield. Furthermore, in spite of a protester's sign at Wisconsin's Capitol identifying Gov. Scott Walker with Pres. Mubarak in Egypt, the goals of the Wisconsinites protesting did not even come close to toppling the bicameral legislature, the head of state, or  the form of government itself. I contend nevertheless, however, that the disjunction or dichotomy between the protests-to-violence in Manama and the protests-as-festival in Madison is at least in part illusionary. 

Sources: (poster of Mubarak and Walker at the protests in Wisconsin)  (on the psychology/corruption in the Madison police dept)
Iona Craig, "Protests Spread, Worsen in Middle East," USA Today, February 18, 2011, p. 8A.
Dennis Cauchon, "In Wis., Pitched Battle by Unions," USA Today, February 18, 2011, p. 1A.