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Michelle Phillips

I have opted to only show photos with factual information on pages 8-9 and write about the stay at home protest, deemed the “Wisconsin Freedom Rally,” in my column because I know that I cannot be objective and not insert my opinion in a news story on this matter. Instead I have decided to just tell everyone what I saw and how it felt. As a woman. As an American. As some who values science and medicine. As someone who is logical (mostly). As someone who has empathy. As a journalist. As someone who risked exposure to COVID-19.

I was apprehensive about going to cover this protest at the state capitol because I has been social distancing and believe what health officials are telling us about the virus. I wear a mask in public and take precautions to prevent spreading coronavirus. I know that we are all at risk of catching the virus and that now it is thought the vast majority of people are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms.

I also get nervous at protests like this because I have been harassed and threatened for being a member of the press. I have had people follow me through events demanding photos be deleted when they are in a public place. I have been flipped off, had dirt kicked at me and been called a plethora of names over the years, many of which are not printable. Not to mention the fact that I do not want to be in the presence of semi-automatic rifles when I am covering something for the paper, or any time, really. 

I went because I could not stay home. I can’t let something like this pass by. It is the sole reason I went into the field of journalism, to show people what is going on around them. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail, but that is always the end goal, to inform people.

I had a plan going in to bring the telephoto lens and wear an N95 mask, and of course stay away from people. I was expecting the crowd to be about the same size as other rallies in spite of reading stories all week claiming that special interests groups were behind the protests. Boy, was I wrong. East Washington Avenue was a giant traffic jam, but the group resembled more of a Trump rally (yes, I have been to one) than a protest to open up the state of Wisconsin. Then suddenly, proof of this not being simply a Wisconsin rally wafted through the air via a PA system. I’m taking photos, vaguely listening between the horn honking. “Who’s here from Michigan?” I hear the man say ask. Cheers and honking horns. Later on the square a man yells from a megaphone. “Who’s from Ohio?” Cheers from the crowd. 

I weave back and forth across the street, taking photos as I go. I snap one of a man in the median. He yells at me not to take his photo. “You’re in a public place,” I holler back as I run across the street though cars flying Trump flags, American flags and Don’t Tread on Me flags. They are cranking music from their cars draped in banners and signs. A couple of people ask me to take their picture.

As I approach the lawn at Capitol Square it is clear to me that it will be hard to social distance with 3,000-4,000 people milling around the grounds and city sidewalks, clustered together to hear speakers from around the state, hardly any, 10 percent I would guess, wearing masks.

They are expressing their disdain of everything from abortion to prayer in schools to gun rights–not just staying at home. There is a guy selling Trump T-shirt walking through the crowd like we were in the parking lot of a concert. And all the while, dozens of police officers in respirator masks are lining the entire square, six feet apart against the neighboring buildings and in small clusters around the grounds. But by far and away the most disturbing and ironic thing to me as a woman was a white, middle aged man hoisting a sign that read, “My Body. My Choice.”

I stand back from the crowd and people walk past me inches away. To get around the capitol building I am going to have to go through them, I realize. I take a deep breath and go past the AKs, past the people dressed in effigy, Trump, Darth Vader, the Grim Reaper, snapping pics as I go. I think Waldo was in there somewhere, too. 

I find the safest spot I can on a patch of grass across the street behind the Harley Davidson of what appears to be a well-seasoned biker. He is sitting on a nearby bench smoking a cigarette and I can tell he is watching me, watching the bike. I turn to look at him behind my mask, stocking cap and glasses half expecting him to say something. He nods. I turn back to the face the capitol and the line of cars circling is at a speed of about one foot per minute.

Some of the speakers talk about their struggling businesses, for which I have empathy. I have been supporting the small businesses that I would normally frequent if they are open. Some businesses that involve close contact should not be open. If you can’t wear a mask there or it involves touching other people, it simply should remain closed in my opinion. I hear them say how they are willing to sacrifice other people’s lives because they want to reopen the economy. An economy that is apparently so fragile it can’t sustain a six week slowdown. What if it is their parent or child, sister or brother that dies because of their selfishness? I guess that’s okay with them, too. There are pastors preaching about their god’s will and politicians trying to further their careers. It is like some confusing and contradictory carnival rolled into town, pulling up stakes when the horse and pony show was over. I took furious notes of the surroundings and encounters to recall it later.

I talked to very few people in the crowd, a man with a gun and multiple rounds of ammunition who would only tell me his name was “Ken.” He declined to let me take his photo, but told me he was there to “protect my freedom.”  His freedom, not freedom in general I thought as he walked away.

“Why are you here today?” I ask a woman named Nancy Johnson from Milwaukee–I cringe and take a step back when I hear where she is from, as Milwaukee has been the hot spot in the state. “Because we need to open our state up for business,” she replies. “Quarantine the sick, not the healthy,” she adds. Both sentiments I see mimicked on protest signs along with “Furlough Evers,” “Open Wisconsin Now” and “Go Back to Work.” 

As I start to head back to my car I hear a woman telling the crowd about how she had been mistakenly and labeled a COVID-19 patient, even though her breathing problem was caused by asthma and allergies. I became suspicious of the story when she said the doctor had tested her three times and all were negative. Where did she find a doctor to test her three times, I wondered. Then I thought about the movie “He’s Really Not That Into You,” when the main character says, “I’m the exception, not the rule.”

I work my way back to the car and walking down East Washington the horn honking is deafening. I see some 20 somethings sitting on their porch and approach to yell over the horns, “How long has this been going on?” They tell me 11:30 a.m-noon. 

Dejon Noel who lives at the residence is asking me questions about the protest: 

Noel: Are there a lot of  people up there?

Me: Yes, a few thousand.

Noel: Are they wearing masks?

Me: No, most of them are not?

Noel: Do they have guns?

Me: Yes there are some individuals and groups of people with guns.

“That it white privilege,” Dejon, a person of color, replies. “If there were black men at the capitol with guns it would be shut down.”

An elderly couple stops to listen to the conversation. First they start to argue that there is no white privilege and claim that no one knows how many people have died. 

“In the US, about 52,000, as of today,” I respond to the old woman.

“I can’t hear you,” she yells, and I believe her because my head is pounding from all the honking. 

“I can’t go to the doctor,” the man screams at Noel. 

“Well, I can’t either,” he responds.

“My biopsy got canceled,” the man shouts as he walks away. 

I get to the car and peel off my hat, coat, mask, glasses, press credentials and camera, tossing it all in the back seat. I reached for the hand sanitizer that now has a home in my cup holder and sanitize my keys, sunglasses and door handles before I get in the car. I make my way to East Gorham Street away from the crowd, the madness and the noise still ringing in my ears. Back to the safety of my home where I will go back into self-quarantine because I have just been around a lot of people that had no protection.  The whole experience truly does make me feel, “Safer at Home.”

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