Thursday, July 28, 2011

Ninety-nine Red Balloons

I'm dating myself with this memory, but the 1982 song "99 Red Balloons (99 Luftballons)" by Nena was part of the soundtrack of my high-school years.

Ninety-nine red balloons
Floating in the summer sky
Panic bells, it's red alert
There's something here from somewhere else...
This was at about the time as the movie "War Games," when the thought of accidental global thermonuclear war was in the public imagination. The song protested the war machine with a fable of two children who release a bevy of toy balloons. Some country's surveillance software takes the balloons for a security threat and: "This is what we've waited for -- this is it, boys, this is war!"

I hadn't thought of that song for years, even when my daughters began to show great delight in helium balloons. A red birthday-balloon tradition became especially strong with Rose, whose February birthday falls at just the right season for discount Valentine balloons!

For Joy, mylar balloons have always been a stimmy delight, from their dangly ribbons to their delightful crackly feel. Once Joy came along, Rose had to learn to share the heart balloons -- though there were always plenty to go around.

Now in Wisconsin, mylar heart-balloons have taken on a whole new meaning.

It started in February, when the protests against Governor Walker's appalling budget proposals broke out. At some point during the initial protests, someone released a heart balloon in the Rotunda. It floated up to the dome... and stayed there. And stayed, and stayed. As the protests morphed into work on the recall elections, and the major remaining protest presence in the Capitol was the daily Solidarity Singalong, the heart balloon became a symbol of the endurance of the protests. A Capitol Balloon Facebook page sprang up, and a Twitter account. When eventually the balloon did come down toward the end of June, it was taken to the Wisconsin Historical Society to be preserved for posterity.

With the original balloon gone, replacements began trickling in. More balloons floated up to take its place, and protesters began delivering balloons to legislators. The Department of Administration and the Capitol police began to take notice. Soon there were reports of an arrest for a balloon release, and of police officers tailing a protester as she delivered balloons to legislative offices.

Then on Tuesday, a bizarre act of violence. The protester who had delivered the balloons was singing toward the end of that day's Solidarity Singalong, bearing a balloon ready for delivery to yet another office, when the facilities manager accosted her and began stabbing her balloon with a knife, repeatedly! By the time the balloon was good and dead, there was blood on the protester and on the floor, though she had not been injured (it seems the knife-wielder had managed to cut himself in the process.) He then took off, leaving spatters of blood in front of the stairs that lead to the Wisconsin Supreme Court -- and she followed to demand his identification. Instead of providing it, the protester & witnesses relate, he grabbed her and threw her into the door of the women's restroom.

The mainstream media coverage has been misleading, sadly at odds with the witness accounts, painting the incident as a little ol' argument that ended in a state employee popping a protester's balloon. The Department of Administration says that their employee hurt his hand in a tumble on the stairs before the confrontation (why he'd go accost a protester rather than attend to the dripping blood, nobody can say.)

Fortunately, between Facebook and Twitter and blogs, we needn't rely the mainstream press for the whole story. By the next day, the eyewitness accounts had made the rounds -- and the response at Wednesday's Solidarity Singalong at the Capitol was incredible.

Our little family was there.

We didn't bring any balloons ourselves, but there were plenty to go around. The Rotunda was alive with heart balloons, and clever signs ("You've already broken my heart -- you didn't need to STAB it too!"), and children running and playing. The crowd was close to 200!

Instead of ruffling the Capitol authorities with a big balloon-release, the organizers attached their balloon-clusters to large spools of ribbon, reeling them up to the dome for the singalong hour, and then back down afterwards. Of course, with so many individual balloons handed out to folks like Rose & Joy, some were bound to escape. We almost lost Joy's, but I caught it just in time and re-attached the string!

Joy isn't entirely thrilled with these singalong events, but she tolerates them if we provide enough food and enough distraction. The balloon was a great help, and has been fun at home too. Meanwhile, the noon protests do provide a small way for me to contribute while still on childcare duty, and lift my spirits as well.

Our struggle in Wisconsin isn't quite the apocalyptic vision from Nena's song, but the metaphor isn't unrelated. Gov. Walker himself referred to his first budget-attack as "dropping the bomb" when he thought he was talking to billionnaire David Koch on the phone -- but was actually getting pranked by a blogger. And this legislative session has surely left a swath of destruction and rubble in its wake. (Examples abound at a clever new website called WTF has Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker done so far?)

Recall elections in under two weeks. On August 9 the recalled Republicans face their Democratic challengers, on the 16th the recalled Democrats try to hold their seats as well. Polling shows most of the races close -- Republicans have no insurmountable leads -- we've got a real chance to flip the Senate here!

But meanwhile...

...Ninety-nine dreams I have had
And every one a red balloon
It's all over, I'm standing pretty
In the dust that was a city

I could find a souvenir
Just to prove the world was here
Here it is, a red balloon
I think of you and let it go


BabyWeightMyFatAss said...

Interesting. We don't get much news of this stuff down here but good show of solidarity. I hope the recalls work!

Char Brandl said...

It's quite a story. Very well told here. Love the balloons. Love the Solidarity Singalong!

Suze said...

That video gives me hope.

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a story. I'll never look at a red balloon the same again.

The solidarity singalong - and your family - inspires me. I know you'll keep singing.

JoyMama said...

Yeah, 200 Tea Partiers on the lawn in DC draws almost an equal number of press corps, 200 enthusiastic Solidarity Singers in the Rotunda in Wisconsin gets little or no coverage.

But the people who need to notice -- the ones inside the Capitol, including several who we're planning to send packing soon, are hearing us loud and clear.

It IS a hopeful video, isn't it?!

JoyMama said...

rhemashope - we're singing again today, and taking along a visitor (our former-pastor's daughter, who left Madison when her mom was called to another congregation in Kansas, and is excited at the chance to get in on some of the protesting that she missed!)