Saturday, January 7, 2012
Donuts change the world
On Thursday, February 10, 2011, I was living my life in Madison, Wisconsin. My focus, as it was for so many years prior, was on being a good husband to my wife, father to my three children, and police officer in my community. Among my duties with my department at the time was my role as a member of the executive board of the police union.
On Friday, February 11, 2011, those of us on the union board got emails and phone calls from Jim Palmer. Jim is the executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Officers Association. Jim told us that the
Governor had just introduced legislation that would destroy, or at least seriously damage, almost all of the public employee unions in the State of Wisconsin. Jim also told us that police and fire unions were currently exempt, and would retain our collective bargaining rights for the time being.
The email flurry began that evening, and our board of directors decided to meet in an emergency session on Monday morning. By the time we met that morning, we knew that the UW teaching assistants had already occupied a portion of the State Capitol building in protest, and that larger protests were expected as the week progressed. The question we pondered during that meeting was simple: what do we do? We essentially had two choices: stand in solidarity with the working people who were affected by this legislation, or sit this one out based upon our exemption.
In one of our prouder moments, every one of the nine board members agreed that we had to speak out, and do it quickly. The first course of action we agreed upon was an almost full page ad in the Wisconsin State Journal. The ad was simple in its message: we stood with all of labor for the rights of working people in the State of Wisconsin. The next idea, from fellow board member Scott Favour, was genius in its simplicity: order 30 dozen donuts, set up a stand on the Capitol square, and hand them out to the protesters. Stick with what you know, and cops know donuts.
So that is exactly what we did. With the help of WPPA, we set up a tent at the Capitol the next day, and several of us handed out donuts. A lot of donuts. We hadn't been inside the Capitol yet, but we were hearing reports that the size of the crowd was growing rapidly. Those we met outside were friendly, and there was an incredible buzz in the air. Since protesting doesn't exactly come naturally to cops, we didn't really know what to do, so we just kept passing out deep-fried good will and chatting with people.
There are moments that, when you evaluate them in hindsight, result in real change in the entire paradigm of your life. What followed was one of those moments for me. As we were passing out donuts, two guys from the AFL-CIO approached our tent and asked if we could help them. They told us that the TA's had been occupying the Capital over the weekend, and were hungry. They said that the AFL-CIO staff was over at a nearby theater cooking brats, and asked if we could shuttle the food into the Capitol. About 10 of us went over to the theater, where we grabbed these huge foil trays of brats, bags of chips, and cases of water. We made a single file line, walked to the Capitol, and went into the doors.
As soon as we were inside, I knew this was bigger than any of us could imagine. We could hear the din of the crowd in the rotunda, and there were people jammed into the hallway. As we passed through that hallway, I saw amazement on people's faces, almost disbelief, that we were there, off-duty, with signs and food. As we got closer to the rotunda, the noise got louder, and there was a palpable electricity in the air.
And then we hit the rotunda.
What happened next will be burned into my memory for the rest of my life. The already substantial din turned into a roar as the Cops for Labor signs were seen. I hit the center of the rotunda, and saw the place was packed with people on all levels overlooking the rotunda. The crowd on the main floor made an aisle for us, and we marched right down the center. As I looked around trying to process what I was seeing, I saw tears streaming down peoples' faces. It caught me off guard, and I thought "holy shit, what is this about?" Then the chants began. First was "thank you," followed by "we love cops." I can honestly say that was a chant I had not heard in my 14 years of law enforcement experience. In general, cops are pleased just to get a wave with all five fingers. It was a very emotional moment for all of us.
I realized a couple of things that day. First was the fact that these protesters were not marginal people operating on the fringes of society. They were not anarchists, and they were not professional troublemakers looking to provoke a confrontation and burn the place to the ground. They were our neighbors, our friends, our family. They were Wisconsinites trying to preserve a way of life and sense of fairness which we had enjoyed for 4 decades in this state. Nurses, teachers, firefighters, steel workers, electricians, correctional officers, snow plow drivers, students, and social workers all in one place, making their collective voice heard.
The second thing I realized is that our mere presence brought them to tears.
Why was that? It surely wasn't due to our limited numbers. There were thousands of people in the Capitol that day, and a few cops with signs and brats barely added to that number. I believe that the tears came from two realities: 1) as police officers, we represented, at least to some, the power structure that would normally be called upon to crush this sort of resistance, and we clearly weren't there to do that, and 2) we showed up, with the firefighters, despite both of our unions being exempt from this legislation. We had no skin in this game, yet we still showed up.
It was at this moment that I realized the Cops for Labor movement would have a very powerful voice in this debate. I believe to this day that our presence changed the dynamic of this fight. People understood on an unspoken level that if the cops and firefighters were there protesting, things must be pretty bad. Looking back, we had no idea just how bad.
But Walker failed to understand something too: donuts can change the world.