That’s what I told a friend I took with me to Madison a couple of years ago. We were wandering around the morning after a conference, and since it was Sunday there was nothing much to do, so we walked up to the Capitol Square. “Can we go inside?” he asked, looking at the Capitol building.
The doors were unlocked. We took that to mean yes. We walked right in, into that magnificent marble and stone building you’ve all seen in videos over and over again by now. No metal detectors, no searches of our bags, no dogs sniffing at us. We didn’t have to take our shoes off. We didn’t need to sign anything. Our IDs stayed in our wallets. Our coats stayed on.
We wandered the halls, basically in silence, in a self-guided version of a tour schoolchildren around the state take every year. Hearing rooms and official offices were locked, and some hallways were roped off. A few guards stood around, but there’s really nothing to steal. You’d need a jackhammer to boost the Fighting Bob head off its marble pedestal and then like five guys to help you carry it out. Perhaps five or six other small groups were there with us, and we waved to their children across the rotunda space. People hushed their voices, except to call out, to hear the echo there.
It’s a space defined, as all spaces are, by what it encloses. It’s a space defined by what lies within, by the work of democracy. We call religious places of worship sacred space not because the particular kind of timber or shade of paint that covers them merits respect, but because the work done inside those places does. This place said to anyone and everyone, come inside. If there was a problem, it was dealt with, but even after 9/11, even after every security scare, this place was open.
Until today, when the governor of Wisconsin locked the building down, and ordered the police to keep out anyone not frisked and scanned and searched. For two weeks protesters had occupied the Capitol, putting up signs (with blue painter’s tape, so as not to damage the marble, as instructed by organizers) and singing songs (the national anthem, the horror, was a frequent refrain) and sharing bratwurst and pizza with the local police. They’ve moved when told to move, quieted down when told to quiet down, they cheered the floor-buffer-driving cleaning crew last night, and this morning they awoke to an eviction notice because their presence embarrasses Walker, who has to speak to the Legislature tomorrow afternoon.
I’ve got no official position on whether protesters should stay or go; that’s up to them. I’m sitting in front of a keyboard typing stuff. They’re risking arrest every day. And crowd control, how many people it is safe to have inside, that’s a different question. But the pictures of the locks and the scanners and the dogs, the sound of the chanting from outside, “Let us in,” that boils my blood. This house was open. This house rang with joy and enthusiasm and speech of all kinds. You could walk up to this house and if the door was open you could go inside. It threatened no one. It harmed nothing. Fewer arrests have been made there than at your average football game. My First Draft colleague, Scout, was there last night and has been there the past two weeks (the video up there is hers and all the rest are here), and calls this “the most gosh-darn nicest protest ever.”
There was no “free speech zone.” People were everywhere. That was the point. The whole place was a free speech zone. The whole world is a free speech zone. People like to bag on Madison’s political history and liberal culture and act like it’s ridiculous. The idea of walling people off into a little area where they can act out the ideals we used to enjoy all over my country tis of thee the United States of America is what’s ridiculous. And it took being in a place, seeing a place, where that wasn’t the case for it to really hit me how absolutely insane it is that Wisconsin isn’t everywhere, that we aren’t all in a free speech zone all the time.
This house was open. This house was everybody’s, belonged to anybody who opened the door that day, anybody who could come and stay. And Governor Walker locked it down. Locked it away. Bolted it shut. They’re rifling through purses now, scanning briefcases. You have to take off your coat to come in. You have to wait in line.