Saturday, November 19th, 2011. 6:34AM. Three young men, 32, 25 and 20, depart Brooklyn, NY with one goal: cross “Lambeau Field” off of their respective bucket lists.
The “frozen tundra” of Lambeau, idolized in 1990s Sportscenter broadcasts by Chris Berman, is perhaps as iconic an image as there is in pro football. The Packers teams of the 1960s defined “sports dynasty” like few professional sports teams have, winning five Super Bowls in the seven year span from 1961-1967. The Super Bowl trophy itself would eventually be named after Green Bay’s head coach of the time, Vince Lombardi. By all measures, Lambeau Field, one of the few pro sports stadiums to avoid the pitfalls of corporate renaming over the last twenty five years, is the epitome of the football experience, known for sub-zero temperatures, raucous crowds and the kind of grind it out, tough man pigskin one can conjure without any real knowledge of the sport.
What people might not realize, however, is that compared to the big cities of the bulk of the NFL’s teams (New York, San Francisco, Miami, Washington…even smaller markets like St. Louis or Oakland) Green Bay is in the middle of nowhere. This rural town with a population of roughly 100,000 is two hours from the nearest “metropolis,” Milwaukee, and another thirty minutes from the nearest large college town, Madison. It is also 16 hours from Brooklyn. But, hey, it’s Lambeau, and this wasn’t just a football game to me and my co-crazies, it was a bucket list cross-off mission.
Glancing at the map of the Brooklyn-to-Green Bay drive would get the gears turning for anybody working in or sympathizing with the labor movement. The first state to get traversed along said route is Pennsylvania, a long-time bastion of American industry and a state rife with national political implications. Next comes Ohio, the site of labor’s biggest victory this year, the repeal of Governor Kasich’s anti-collective bargaining bill, SB5. Then Indiana, a state gearing up for a bruiser of a “Right-to-Work” battle next year, and Illinois, a storied pro-union midwestern state, are crossed. But the cake-taker, in terms of the ongoing role of labor in politics, is without question Wisconsin where the effort to recall Governor Scott Walker and send his fiercely anti-union budget blunder packing began four days before our roadtrip, on November 15th.
We man-handled the first 14 hours of the drive on Saturday, stopping overnight in the small town of Skokie, IL for some rest. We left Skokie at 6AM the next day to ensure time to tailgate and get the complete Lambeau experience.
Not 15 minutes after crossing the Wisconsin state line, I encountered the trip’s first piece of friendly political propaganda: a “Recall Walker” bumper sticker. Considering it was just after sunrise, I’d say my excitement level about this was exceedingly high, so much so that I woke up one of my co-crazies to show them.
“Look, dude. Recall Walker!”
“Oh, cool,” he said, before dozing back off.
During the long, quiet hours of the day’s previous drive I had pictured myself as part of Wisconsin’s labor battle. Now, with the slap of a sticker, I felt like I was in the throes of it.
As we got closer to Green Bay, the people in the cars beside us slowly sported more and more football fan gear — green and gold jerseys, beanies and parkas — but hardly any pro-union or anti-Walker memorabilia. I peeked at every vehicle, trying to get a read on the nature of the folks inside, looking for political allies. I only saw one more piece of anti-Walker messaging en route to Lambeau, a driver’s side window dressing:
I pulled up next to the car and honked, elated, but they didn’t notice.
The impetus for this road trip was, admittedly, not labor related. Still, with all of the Wisconsin political action I’d chronicled and followed this year, I figured this would be a great opportunity to see first hand the on-ground efforts of the labor movement and to bond with other Wisconsinites over our mutual interest in protecting the rights of the common man. Prior to departure, I had reached out to people via Twitter and Facebook to see if any union folks would be in attendance, but didn’t get any feedback. Seeing the two anti-Walker car decorations, though, emboldened my interest in participating in the Wisconsin experience in a more-than-sports kind of way. I figured I’d see union colors and logo flags flying in the parking lot and be able to, at the very least, pump my fist or do a 99% cheer.
Boy oh boy, was I in for a surprise.
The Packers are the only non-profit, community-owned major professional sports team in the United States. As we approached the stadium we saw something that seemed nothing short of anachronistic for 2011 — an entire neighborhood butted up against the Lambeau Field parking lot. There were no expansive home team decorations, blocks of Gordon Biersches, or police waving cars in directions they didn’t want to go. There were just modest houses with men and women in their own driveways, bundled up and flagging drivers down with signs that read “Parking $20″ and “Stay All Day!” More shocking than the proximity of these de facto parking spots to the stadium was that this was the official, understood way of doing things by Lambeau staff. When we asked the official lot keeper what our options were, she didn’t give us a hard time or ask us to keep moving, she told us with a smile, “It’s $40 in the party lot, or you can park at any of these houses.” This was the kind of hyper-local, uber-friendly attitude that we expected from the Green Bay faithful and something that I thought would play in to the hands of Recall Walker hysteria.
Boy oh boy, was I in for a surprise.
Walking through the parking lot, I realized my online-only interaction with the Wisconsin political landscape may have misled me. Yes, Lambeau was littered with blue collar folks, but they weren’t wearing AFSCME shirts or LIUNA hats. They were wearing camouflage hunting suits and Packers jerseys colored ten-mile orange. This was the rural blue collar — the entirely white blue collar, might I add — not Madison’s idealized blue-fist populism I’d read about on the Internet.
Now, let me be unequivocal about one thing: I do not share the perceived city slicker phobia of rural culture, nor do I expend my energy decrying the hunters, tobacco dippers and Fox News watchers as lesser souls like many self-anointed progressives do. On the contrary, I revere the country life’s uniquely American elements — the barbecue, the early 20th century music, the peace and prosperity only the open road, farm and field can deliver. I have been to almost every state in the continental United States and I have tried, whether stopping through or starting up, to find each one’s pulse. By pointing out the nature of the folks at the stadium I intend only to suggest that what you see on Twitter or read on your political listserv about the effort to recall Scott Walker is an incomplete picture. Sure, some Packers players came out in support of labor unions during the initial budget battle in Madison last February, but make no mistake about it — it ain’t no Packers players from Green Bay.
When we entered the Lambeau Field atrium — a heated add-on to the original stadium that stands as the only sign of modern enterprise creeping into the historic stadium’s DNA — there was a stand, sponsored by the Kohl’s department store chain, where you could “Make Your Own Sign.” Still reeling from my bumper sticker viewings and refusing to pass political judgement on the crowd we were making our way through, I moseyed over to the Kohl’s stand and waited while Packers die-hards colored in their football-centric slogans. When the woman in front of me, a school teacher, finished her gorgeous bubble letters (complete with accurate shadowing), I grabbed the sharpies and a fresh piece of poster board and began writing in large, plain text: “Progress Yes. Recall Yes.”
On November 14th, the Monday night before the Walker recall officially kicked off, the Governor ran a TV ad during the Packers’ Monday Night Football broadcast. It featured a teacher who claimed to share one of the concerns of Walker’s detractors — cutting school funding — but explained that she supported the Governor nonetheless. The ad’s slogan was simple: “Progress Yes. Recall No.”
By co-opting the language of Walker’s ad I figured I would get a rise out of sympathizers who might enjoy the turn of phrase but also be able to reach prospective Packers fans who may have seen the ad without being entirely engaged in the political process.
With my sign complete and my heart racing a bit from the excitement of taking even this small action, we exited the atrium and re-entered the cold Green Bay air en route to our seats. What happened next shocked me.
I held the sign in front of my chest as we walked, not smiling, not doing anything to instigate or antagonize, just taking in the surroundings and looking for our seating section. Not one minute around the bend a woman walked straight up to me and yelled in my face, “IDIOT!”
Honestly, it happened so fast, and I was so unprepared for it, that I didn’t at first think it could have been what I thought it was. My buddies were trailing behind a bit, so they didn’t see it happen. When they caught up to me, I asked them if they thought the woman was talking to me, but they had no idea what I meant.
Thirty seconds later, a pair of large, overall’ed men passed us and said, sarcastically, “Recall Walker? Okay, buddy!” My friends saw this and turned to me, “did you hear that?”
Of course I had heard it. My heart was now racing a bit more from nerves than from the excitement of taking action. I knew I was doing my part but it also seemed a bit like I was doing us in.
We finally reached the entrance to our section when one of my co-crazies asked us to wait while he used the men’s room. The two of us stood near the entrance, my sign still held across my chest, when a man holding a beer leaned over to me.
“What’s that for?,” he asked with a smirk. I sensed the antagonism in his voice, but I decided to treat him like a stand up guy and I answered plainly.
“It’s for the Scott Walker recall. I support it.”
His response to my response caught me off guard.
“Let me see your driver’s license.”
This was alarming in part because it registered as somewhat of a physical threat, but also because I was witnessing in-the-flesh the power of the media to feed this kind of demand. Ohio Governor John Kasich’s backers had suggested that, in the SB5 repeal battle, there was a lot of out-of-state influence, that Washington was coming in to Columbus and trying to affect change that wouldn’t effect them. Labor unions in particular had been assailed for spending national money on state affairs. Based on this gentleman’s audacious request for my ID, it was clear that this messaging was making its way through Wisconsin as well. But, I had no interest in lying. I was just trying to act on my beliefs.
“Oh, I’m not from here,” I told him. “I’m from Maryland. We came for the game.”
“That’s fucking pathetic. You know that’s fucking pathetic, don’t you?”
I had no choice but to grin awkwardly and walk away. My buddy gave me a ‘let’s go’ look and we descended the steps to our seats.
This story pretty much ends here. We nestled in to our seats and took in the glory of Lambeau. Despite its 70,000 seat capacity, it has a smallness to it, an intimacy that most college stadiums don’t even accomplish. It was everything we had read about and heard — freezing, modest, and loud.
Having just gone through a brief Wisconsin hazing, I knew I would have to write about my experiences. I would need one more piece of content to complete my prospective post.
“We need to take a picture of me with this sign,” I told my buddy.
“Ok,” he answered sternly. “But then I think we should put it away.”
He was right. We didn’t drive 16 hours to be political outcasts, activist city slickers, or labor union shit-kickers. We drove 16 hours to be like everyone else. Plain old Packers fans.