Madison's newest campground opened at 7 p.m. Saturday, with most choice tent spots in "Walkerville" resting on concrete. There was no fee or registration, but the rules were strict, privacy was zero and scary stories around the flashlight were likely to feature cuts, slashes and vouchers.
There were roughly three dozen tents set up by 8 p.m., but by 9 p.m. organizers estimated there were 250 campers in 75 to 100 tents. The convivial mood was infectious, with lots of friendly conversation and tents set up within inches of neighbors, as if at a rock festival.
With the requisite permission from the city and county, but with grumbling from some nearby businesses, a federation of unions, students and other groups calling itself We Are Wisconsin plans to maintain a presence by way of its tent city in opposition to Gov. Scott Walker until June 20.
The gathering is the latest act in the 2011 political drama featuring the governor's push to eliminate most collective bargaining rights for most public employees, drawing a cast of thousands to the Square to protest that law, now tied up in court, and other changes to the way government works in Wisconsin.
Protesters have responded creatively, with tractor parades, celebrity appearances, a national television presence and, Saturday night, the Wisconsin incarnation of "Hooverville."
Events begin at 3:30 p.m. today with a focus on protesting state funding cuts to K-12 education.
The police presence was overt. There were Madison police on horses, bicycles, on foot and in cars. State police forces also were visible, though the Capitol was closed. There were clutches of Smoky-hatted State Patrol officers on the Capitol side, along with DNR wardens and Capitol police outside watching the protest village grow.
The incessant drumming seemed out-of-place with what was, by the time Madison Mayor Paul Soglin visited at 7:30 p.m., a family atmosphere.
The McClure family - Beth, Seth, Toby and Maisie - planned to stay a couple of nights, said Beth, who works for the state Department of Public Instruction.
"I think we are hoping to get some national publicity for our efforts, to keep the conversations going about income inequality," she said, as she put up the family tent on Carroll Street.
Along Mifflin Street, an amiable Larry Orr was setting up his "bug-hut," an all-screen tent. Orr has camped in 35 states and, once, on lava in Greece, so the concrete sidewalk did not faze him nor dim his support of the symbolic gesture of occupying the Capitol Square.
"We'll be here day to day, I'm hoping it stays good-spirited," the retired school librarian said.
In one tiny, delicate white tent, (a wedding gift, from China) Kiel Harell and his pregnant wife, Sara Lam, prepared for the evening with good humor. They had chosen a grassy corner of Mifflin Street. They also had just been informed that the little black plastic cap in the corner of their green plot was a sprinkler that would go off at 5 a.m.
They weren't going to move, said Lam, adding that the sprinkle might do them good in the morning. Lam said the camping protest "is only one part of a large campaign against a budget that hurts a lot of people."
The permits allow Madison police or fire officials to close down the village if they see fit.
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