a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Tegan Nia Swanson
When the Governor signed the union-busting bill on Valentine’s Day morning, there was talk all over town about protests, and boycotts, and sleeping in the State house, filling the marble floors of Lady Forward’s palace with bodies to prevent any more damage being done. Fourteen Democratic senators fled their seats for Illinois that afternoon, post-it notes affixed to their electoral office doors: Walker is a weasel, not a Badger. We will not return until the people have been heard. Despite a blizzard and the frigid winds that whipped up off the lakes, the Isthmus flooded with people. Taxi-drivers, nurses and steel-toed construction workers marched beside preschoolers, college students, and their teachers, who were joined by the fire-fighters and the EMTs – whose benefits had been cut – and by the police unions – whose benefits had not – and the streets rung with the sound of shouting voices.
Keep Calm, they said. Keep Calm. Keep Calm, and Carry On.
It seemed the collective was stronger than the Governor had initially projected.
We who lived in the Lake Cooperative that winter all fancied ourselves rebellious wearers of the black flag, more than a little left-of-center and just outside the law, but Micah was really the only one who actually meant it, in the end. Queer in a family of conservative evangelicals, quiet and sober in a town of extroverted drunks, Micah had always felt outside until he found us, and even then it took him a little while to warm up. But one night after dinner, exactly a week after the bill had been signed and the protests had started, a bunch of us were sitting around the fireplace in our ballroom, drinking and painting and playing musical instruments like the bohemian hipsters that we were, when Micah came up from the cellar with a stack of musty cardboard in his hands.
“Here, assholes,” he said, and dropped them on the floor between us. “Make yourselves useful. We’re goin’ to the Capitol at midnight.”
He left and came back again with a set of acrylic paints, a fistful of black Sharpie markers, and his janky MP3 player, earbuds looped around his neck. If there was anything Micah loved more than fighting the Man, it was getting high and making art while listening to Dubstep, so he plugged that tiny jukebox into our stereo speakers, turned the volume up until the windows shook, and started drawing.
The protest crowd had swelled from a few hundred to one hundred thousand in a matter of days, and that night we joined workers from all over Wisconsin as we converged outside the Capitol building on the corner of West Mifflin and North Carroll and State, signs held aloft in mittened hands. The Sewer Workers Local proclaimed the Governor a piece of shit. Packer fans reminded him that Aaron Rodgers had just won the Super Bowl under a legal union contract. Teachers asked if, perhaps, he might have forgotten how to read and needed a little bit of help remembering. Painted cardboard signs bearing the blue fist of solidarity morphed into an image more like a silhouette of the state, and because Fox News had used footage of a riot in Florida to claim we had turned violent, peaceable protestors brought plastic palm trees to decorate the snowy, winter streets.
The dome of the Capitol loomed above us as we pressed closer to the doors, its white marble façade almost invisible in the snow. The Governor had ordered every door locked but one – a fire hazard, surely – which made it difficult for all of us to enter quickly, but we were patient and still warmed by our indignation, and we barely noticed the cold as the crowd behind us swelled backward and forward, pulsing into the state house like an artery of energy from the streets. Most of us brought simple signs, square block letters in red and black that said things like KILL THE BILL or SOLIDARITY or THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE. Our friend Moon wore a sandwich board over every layer of cotton and wool and fleece she owned that said I LEFT AN UNDERWATER ISLAND FOR THIS?, but Micah stood head and shoulders above us in his platforms and top hat and pearls, a sign in one hand and a bullhorn in the other. As we funneled into a single-file line, ready to enter into the mess, he moved ahead through the doors toward the rotunda, and then he disappeared.
For a moment we felt headless and lost in that sea of noise and sweat and bright halogen light, such stark contrast to the muffled world of snow outside, but soon we realized the amalgam family we had formed in our co-op house by the lake was no longer limited to each other. Thousands of protestors who had arrived before us sat smiling from tiny makeshift homes in every corner of the Capitol building: beside the stairs, between office doorways, in the sweeping open space of the floors beneath the dome. Some had signs that offered extra blankets or pillows. There was a borrowing library and a sign-painting station, and the walls were plastered with protest art. In each room after the first, there were more and more people, more and more information tables about citizens’ rights and activist organizations, sleeping provisions and first aid, historic memorials and misdemeanor fines. Piles of pizza boxes, salad greens, bananas, and sub sandwiches were stacked on folding furniture beside collections of bottled water, and when we asked a Capitol police officer if we had to pay for any, he told us it had been donated by friends and strangers from every state in the nation, from countries as far away as Egypt and Greece.
“Eat up. Just keep it civil, folks,” he told us. “This is our house. We’ll stay as long as we can stand it.”
Shoulder to shoulder in that crowd of thousands, we were swept up three flights of marble stairs to stare down over the rotunda, where there was a drum circle and a podium, no standing room or floor space to be seen. The air around us buzzed with conversation, but then suddenly the electronic shriek of microphone against circuitry ripped through the building and every body fell silent. We heard Micah before we saw him, his fist thrust into the air, top hat askew against his natty black hair.
What do we want? he hollered into that bullhorn, and without warning or practice, we responded. DEMOCRACY!
He thrust his fist further toward the ceiling. We answered him and he answered back, and so it went until the whole hall was hoarse. When he could no longer stand, he leaned into the hands of the masses and they lifted him. He spread his arms and legs for them to carry him aloft, and every palm upturned to keep him safe. We watched as he was borne above them, a queer Jesus hollering in the halls of the Capitol, and for a moment we all thought he could reach us, because when he spoke it was as if his voice could sound for everyone, and when he spoke, we knew it was meant for us and not the State. It was him our hearts needed. It was him that would bring us together, and him who would heal us, and he that would finally let us crush forward as a single moving beast. And so when Micah asked us, when do we want it? We shouted back, NOW!
Tegan Nia Swanson is a graduate of the MFA Program in Creative Writing & Environment Program at Iowa State University, where she was the 2011 Pearl Hogrefe Fellow. Her fiction appears in Ecotone, Bellingham Review, and Connu, and she was a finalist for the 2014 Fiction Fellowships at the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing. Find more at http://teganniaswanson.wordpress.com/.