Many of the events in Wisconsin during early 2011 are a bit of a blur.
After former Republican Gov. Scott Walker “dropped the bomb” and unveiled his anti-collective bargaining bill, now known as Act 10, keeping up with the frenetic pace of news was nearly impossible. It seemed like each day brought one surreal development after another — from massive protests at the state Capitol in Madison and Democratic senators fleeing to Illinois, to celebrity appearances and Walker talking to a blogger posing as billionaire donor David Koch.
Here are some of the wild, intense, weird or downright wacky moments from Act 10 that we’ll never forget:
State Sen. Lena Taylor knows how to get her point across. And on Feb. 17, 2011, she did that with just three letters — “brb,” shorthand for “be right back.” That was the day the Wisconsin Senate was expected to vote on Walker’s bill, but the state’s 14 Democratic senators were nowhere to be found.
Taylor and the other Democratic senators had skipped town and headed to Illinois, where at least some of them were spotted in Rockford at The Clock Tower Resort.
The senators, known among supporters as the “Fab 14,” spent most of the next month in Illinois. By leaving town they were able to delay passage of Act 10 because supporters needed 20 senators to be present to take it up as originally drafted.
The Camel on Capitol Square
The 2011 protests in Madison quickly drew comparisons to the pro-Democracy movements in Egypt and throughout Arab world, which came to be known as Arab Spring. It appears that’s what inspired comedian John Oliver, who was then with “The Daily Show,” to rent a camel and bring it to Capitol Square.
It did not go well, as these videos taken by then-Madison blogger Jack Craver show. The camel got its legs tangled in a fence, slipped and fell on the ice. Thankfully, a group of firefighters, including some carrying “Firefighters for Labor” signs, stopped and helped the crew with rescue efforts.
“The Daily Show” later issued a statement saying the camel “was not injured.”
Walker prank call with fake ‘David Koch’
Not long after the protests began, Walker got a call from a man he thought was billionaire conservative donor David Koch. Walker actually spent about 20 minutes talking with Ian Murphy, a blogger from the Buffalo Beast.
The most cringeworthy part of the conversation came when Murphy, posing as Koch, suggested putting “troublemakers” in the crowd of protesters, and Walker replied: “We thought about that.” But the governor then added that he had rejected the idea, saying he feared a “ruckus” would “scare the public into thinking maybe the governor has to settle to avoid this problem.”
Murphy said he first spoke with Walker’s chief of staff, used Skype to make the call and didn’t have a return number to give — so he made up a story about his maid dropping his phone in the washer.
In a recent interview, Walker said the call with the prankster disproved theories by liberals that the Kochs had given him the plan for Act 10.
“Others would say, ‘Oh, where did this come from? It came from the Koch brothers.’ I laughed after that call went out,” Walker said. “It was clear I’d never met them because I didn’t even know what they sounded like.”
Inflatable palm trees
There are no palm trees around the Wisconsin State Capitol.
Fox News learned that the hard way when the conservative network used footage of an angry confrontation in Sacramento, California, during a segment about the 2011 protests in Madison. Eagle-eyed viewers noticed the footage, which aired during a segment about Madison and was labeled “union protests,” featured palm trees and looked much balmier than the finger-numbing winter Wisconsin was experiencing.
Protesters responded by bringing inflatable palm trees and setting them up in the snow around the Capitol.
Other inflatables, including a huge “fat cat,” also appeared during the 2011 protests.
Nobody went hungry during the protests at the Capitol thanks to Ian’s Pizza on State Street.
Ian’s got pizza orders for the protesters from people all around the United States, as well as a number of countries, including Egypt.
There was so much pizza that Ian’s deliverymen (and women) became a constant presence at the Capitol and pizza boxes were transformed into protest signs, reading things like “Powered by Pizza.”
A controversy erupted soon after the protests began when some doctors gave out sick notes to protesters near the Capitol. The issue was covered extensively by the conservative MacIver Institute, and then by mainstream media outlets around the country.
“That incident took place right outside our offices. I saw that and said we need to capture this footage,” Brian Fraley, who was then communications director for MacIver, said during a recent interview.
He said MacIver used social media “to capture events that otherwise were not covered, and paint a more complete picture of the occupation,” adding that the video was picked up by Drudge Report, Fox News and others.
“Our site crashed from the onslaught of hits,” Fraley said. “Within 5 minutes I set up a temporary site that contained only the video. We recorded more than 300,000 web visits that day.”
During the Act 10 battle and beyond, nationally-known activists as well as celebrities seemed to come to Wisconsin in droves.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson repeatedly visited Madison during that time.
Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine fame also rallied with protesters at the Capitol in February 2011, telling Rolling Stone at one point, “What’s happened so far might be the most inspiring 24 hours of my life as an activist.”
Even after the occupation of the Capitol ended, a group known as the Solidarity Sing-Along continued for years. It typically involved non-professional singers gathering inside the rotunda or on Capitol Square, but at times drew famous singers like Arlo Guthrie.
Arlo joined the singers for a Wisconsin version of his father Woody Guthrie’s legendary folk song: “This land is your land, this land is my land From Lake Geneva to Madeline Island. From the rolling prairies to our lovely dairies Wisconsin was made for you and me.”
Late-night comedy shows
During Act 10, Wisconsin became the unlikely darling of late-night comedy shows.
“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” launched its “Crisis in Dairyland” series of dispatches poking fun at Walker, the crackdown on teachers, and some of the protesters. Segment titles included “Apocalypse Cow” and “Revenge of the Curds.”
Stephen Colbert of “The Colbert Report” called his series on the protests things like “Turmoil in the Middle West” and “Wisco Inferno.” One of his segments featured Sen. Jon Erpenbach and a green screen, which he used to “smoke out” the Democratic senator in a number of locations, including at a strip club, surrounded by chickens and even with dinosaurs.
“Oh, my parents are not going to be proud of this,” Erpenbach said at one point, laughing and shaking his head.
Outdoor office hours
At certain points during the Act 10 protests, the doors of the Capitol were locked. Officials said that was because capacity limits had been reached and additional protesters could not be allowed inside.
Some Democratic state representatives showed their disapproval for the lockdown by hauling their desks and landline telephones outside to hold office hours.
They said the move was meant to give constituents access to them while the Capitol was locked down.
At one point in March 2011, Walker administration officials estimated that it would cost $7.5 million to clean up the Capitol after weeks of protests. Those estimates included costs to repair damage to the marble and stone from things like tape, as well as to restore the Capitol grounds.
Officials later backtracked away from those numbers, saying they were basically rough estimates written on a piece of notebook paper.
By May, the total damage estimate had dropped to $270,000.
Red Heart Balloon
In 2011, people made snowmen holding protest signs, nicknamed “snow testers.” They carried vuvuzelas, drums and signs. They also brought red heart balloons.
One of those balloons seemed to become lodged near the top of the Capitol dome and hovered there for weeks beginning in February. It became a symbol and source of inspiration for some protesters, and had its own Twitter and Facebook accounts.
“I think the Capitol balloon symbolizes the feelings of solidarity that Wisconsinites are feeling, and the love for our Capitol,” frequent protester Nicole Desautels told the Wisconsin State Journal at the time. “It’s something that is not going to give up. The balloon is a symbol of our fight.”
The red heart balloon was eventually removed shortly after some conservatives discussed shooting it down.
Glenn Grothman and the protesters
U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, who was a state senator at the time, developed an unusual relationship with the protesters.
At one point Grothman in March 2011 was followed and loudly heckled by protesters as he struggled to get into the locked-down Capitol. Many in the crowd chanted “Shame!” Others drummed and blew whistles. That’s when then-state Rep. Brett Hulsey, a Madison Democrat, stepped in to shield him from the crowd.
Grothman downplayed the encounter with protesters in a recent interview, saying he never felt threatened.
“I think I got along with the protesters and some of them call me to this day,” he said. “They text me to this day. They needle me to this day. They give me a good-natured needling to this day.”