This is what democracy looks like

Published on: 2/20/2011

Walking up to the state capital building in Madison yesterday, the mother stopped to adjust her daughter's scarf and hat. It was a tender moment, and the girl didn't seem to mind. About 11, she wasn't much bigger than the sign she carried.

"38,000 of you and just us two against you," I think it said. She'd drawn the letters carefully, though the lines were a little thin, making it hard to read even from 20 feet.

And this is what democracy looks like: a mother and child braving a crowd that must seem scary and threatening to speak for what they believe.

Democracy also looks like the tens of thousands (38,000 is as good an estimate as any) of people carrying signs with messages like "Care about Educators Like They Care about Your Children."

A few signs were rude, over the top, confusing. Some were clever and funny, some just belligerant. All around the capital were solitary sentinels holding the peace, sitting with signs reminding everyone "This is a peaceful demonstration."

And so it was, for the most part. Even yelling seems violent to me, and there was a little of that.

Police were everywhere, along with sheriffs and game wardens and whoever else was officially called to keep the peace. Inside the building, the officers were relaxed. The atmosphere was more festive than anything, and there was none of  the sour, metallic smell of danger.

Friend Susan took photos of me with some police from Kiel and a game warden from who knows where. I promised not to put flowers in their weapons.

They smiled and said, "Just don't photoshop signs on us!"

"We're too old to know how to do that," I claimed.

"Ma'am, everyone knows how to do that," one joked back.

What we see is colored by what we expect to see. Walking the dog the other night, I noticed a house with open curtains and lights l where I'd never seen a light before. The room looked richly paneled, a dining room with tall upholstered chairs. How pretty, I thought. Then I got closer. The "chairs" were computer screens, the paneling the kind most of us tear out when we buy houses last remodeled in the 70s. The gracious dining room was a hard-working office.

"Believe half of what you see, none of what you hear," the song reminds us. The trick is seeing everything and picking the right part to believe. Those who came to the capital expecting anger and thuggery saw that. Those of us who came expecting solidarity and decency saw that. The truth is a little mixed. It usually is.

In one corner of the square, where the Tea Partiers were assembling, mounted police and a squadron of heavily armed and armored law enforcers stood watchfully waiting. Snipers were strategically placed all around, though I didn't know that until today. You're not supposed to know they are there. So it's no surprise the people there felt violence was imminent.

I hope they weren't disappointed when none broke out.

Meanwhile, I will remember a slight girl carrying a sign opposing the crowd and two smaller girls in pink and lavendar carrying signs proclaiming "Princesses for Unions." Democracy looks like that, too.