Have the Wisconsin protesters gone too far?

Last Wednesday two events clashed in Madison and the outcome could turn the tide of opinion against some of the people who have made protesting Gov. Scott Walker and his policies a full time effort.

June 8 was designated as “Zombie Day” by the United Council of UW Students. Protesters of all ages were encouraged to come to Capitol Square either in full zombie costume or ready to be “made up” to look like the undead. Zombies could even have a “comically large extra Photo ID” taken at the event.

The “Die In” was created to “symbolize students being dead to the legislators.” The Facebook pageestablished to promote the event said that students have had road blocks to voting put in place through the Voter ID bill and are overburdened with debt from the lack of higher educational funding. The latter is listed as the main reason for the march, but is mentioned last in the list of grievances the “zombies” have with the legislature and Governor.

The same day was designated as the kickoff to the 2011 Wisconsin Special Olympicst and the 25th anniversary 0f the Special Olympics Torch Run. The Torch Run is a partnership between the Special Olympics and Law Enforcement to raise funds and awareness of the program for these special athletes. Last year, the Torch Run raised more than $38 million in support of Special Olympics. The Wisconsin Torch Run is the fifth highest grossing program in the world, raising nearly $2.3 million in 2010 with more than 1,000 registered participants representing 170 law enforcement agencies.

Walker appeared on the Capitol Steps at the Torch Run ceremony to address over 500 athletes from across the state, to speak to the heroism of the Special Olympians.

But some of the zombies, not all, decided that an event to honor the physically and mentally challenged was an excellent opportunity to embarrass the Governor over his policies. So instead of allowing the Olympians to see and hear the Governor and other speakers there to honor them, the zombies positioned themselves between the athletes and Walker.

When Walker took the podium, the zombies turned their backs, with their made-up faces turned toward the Special Olympians. The backs of their t-shirts read “Students are as good as dead” along with the date of the event.

Erika Wolf, a member of the United Council of UW Students said the protest had nothing to do with the Special Olympics and the few zombies who took the action at the ceremony “just stood quietly in their protest.”

The following day, Thursday, the Student Council of UW Students issued a statement saying the persons who disrupted the Special Olympics ceremony were “rogue” zombies carried away by the emotion of the event. The Council decried the activity and expressed its “respect and admiration for the work of the Special Olympics and the athletes that participate.”

Some parents, caregivers and law enforcement officers were appalled by the behavior of the protestors, but one mother of a Special Olympian agrees with the zombies’ actions. While she and her child did not attend the event, she said she wishes she had.

“I would have undoubtedly joined the protesters and asked my daughter to do it, too,” she said. “I would have told her that Walker is cutting money for people like her and her friends and families just like he is cutting money for her friends still in school and her teachers.”

“I think peaceful protests are very effective no matter where they occur. Talk about a group that is “dead” like the zombies: it’s the disabled.”

Rachel Grant, an official with the Wisconsin Special Olympics, said they were nervous when the zombies first arrived, but the zombies were not disruptive at all.

Walker described the incident as an even greater low in this entire season of political rhetoric.

“The event itself, we weren’t talking about us or our agenda, but all about acknowledging the over 2,000 athletes and thousands of men and women across the state who do this Torch Run,” Walker told WTMJ 620-AM’s Charlie Sykes.

Members of both political caucuses, conservative AM talkers and commentators on all sides of the political spectrum slammed the behavior of the zombies – calling it poor taste, mean-spirited and just plain stupid.

Add disrespectful and overreaching for the cause from this writer.

Not all Special Olympians are children, but many are childlike and accepting of all people.  Before America descended into a lifestyle of knee-jerk partisanship, meeting a Governor, a Senator or the President was an honor, no matter which party they represented. It was a matter of respecting the office.

Children and the childlike still uphold the idea, giving a degree of inherent respect to elected officials. And these athletes were probably excited to see and meet the Governor, regardless of the letter behind his name or his proposed policies.

To take away the opportunity for these athletes to be honored by the state and shine on their day was stupid. Most of these Olympians had no concept of the grievance the zombies had with Walker. They came to celebrate their achievements in sports.

Instead the zombies saw the ceremony as a photo op for their cause. Partisans say Walker had the same base intentions – photos with Special Olympians look good when your poll numbers are dropping. But the Torch Run is a 25-year tradition which previous governors of both parties have attended and enjoyed.

And the public relations fallout has been harsh. The zombies have tainted the discussion of substantive issues in Act 10 and the 2011-13 biennial budget proposal by ruining a day of celebration for some of this state’s special heroes.

The independent and non-committed voters they were trying to reach probably were not persuaded to vote against Walker or GOP Senators facing recalls next month. Instead they hardened the opposition with their childish behavior.

True, we all have the right to peaceably assemble and exercise their First Amendment right to question the actions of our government. Those rights even extend to zombies. But both of these rights need to be tempered with some discretion and respect.

Can zombies, angry unionized teachers and highway workers – or even the supporters of the Governor’s policies – show up at their opposition’s rallies to scream and holler, wave signs and disrupt speakers? Yes, that is our God-given and constitutionally protected right.

But should they disrupt an event that is strictly non-partisan and even humanitarian (not to imply the Special Olympics organization doesn’t use political action to secure rights and privileges for its members) to advance their partisan agenda? In my humble opinion, the answer is a resounding “No.”

In an unrelated incident, 12 “zombie” protesters were arrested on June 8 during a sit-in at Rep. Robin Vos’s (R-Rochester). Vos is the Co-Chairman of the Joint Finance Committee.


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