It's hard to imagine large groups of Wisconsinites saying no to an event devoted entirely to celebrating bratwurst, but that's just what started to happen as some reconsidered their willingness to support an event -- the World's Largest Brat Fest -- sponsored by Johnsonville, whose CEO has made significant donations to Gov. Scott Walker and Republican state Sen. Randy Hopper (who is up for recall).
"We feel this is really a better way to do a brat fest," said Ken Dunbeck, messaging and communications director for the Autonomous Solidarity Organization, the group behind the first-ever People's Bratfest.
The People's Bratfest was designed to be an alternative to the World's Largest Brat Fest, but it was not meant to be an anti-Johnsonville event, Dunbeck said. Dunbeck also stressed that all three alternative festivals that have sprung up this weekend worked in cooperation with each other, and people should visit any or all of the events -- including the World's Largest Brat Fest.
"The idea is getting people to get out and start talking with each other about the issues," Dunbeck said. The group hoped people at the People's Bratfest would discuss how best to move Wisconsin forward, after the state's motto.
The event, held on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in hopes that people would stop by after visiting the Farmers Market, held steady crowds from 10 a.m. until it packed up at 3 p.m.
Those who attended consumed brats and cheese curds from local farms, along with cookies, cotton candy and Sprecher sodas.
Proceeds from the event were split evenly among a still-growing list of local charities including Family Farm Defenders and the Humane Society. Proceeds from the cotton candy stand helped pay for a bounce castle, in which children could play for free. The Autonomous Solidarity Organization kept no profits, Dunbeck said.
"You can exercise for free and pay to eat the sugar," said Arthur Kohl-Riggs, a volunteer who operated the cotton candy booth.
Edward Kuharski, an architect whose philosophy for the day was "Less bombs, more brats," said he advocated a "free range, organic federal budget," adding that he would "definitely not" be attending the Johnsonville-sponsored fest.
Tammie Murray, a business owner who helps people retrain for jobs, agreed. She said she would rather give money directly to the causes she believes in, and even if Johnsonville didn't benefit financially from the World's Largest Brat Fest, she didn't want to give them any extra publicity by attending. She protests regularly because she believes Walker and his forces are "trying to create a subservient working class."
"I hope that people realize if they don't get involved now, they may not be able to later," Murray said.
The marching band was followed by the festival's "official juggler," the Truly Remarkable Loon. Dressed all in purple, Truly Remarkable Loon shouted toward the Capitol for Walker to "come out here." He said he was performing at the event because his parents grew up in Germany under Hitler's rule, so he knows "it's really important for people to stand up when the government is being wrong."
Later in the afternoon, the Ad Hoc String Band played a few bluegrass tunes. Originally just a group of friends who got together to play music at bluegrass jams, Brian Hirsh, Mitch Rosefelt, Mark Felten and Julie Cherney formed a slightly more organized group during the protests at the Capitol. They were playing during the Farmers Market today when they were approached and asked to perform an impromptu set at the Bratfest -- fitting for an "ad hoc" band, Hirsh said.
Although the event's goal was to promote a community conversation and provide a family-friendly environment, the tone was not as light as the palm tree bounce castle might have suggested.
"I think the consequences of Walker's budget are actually going to kill people," said Russ Bennett, who was there "biking and eating brats" with 10-year-old Zane and 13-year-old Sage. The boys' sister was recently hospitalized with a serious illness, and Bennett said he doesn't know what they would have done without BadgerCare -- a program being targeted for cuts in Walker's budget.
Bennett said he was glad Johnsonville is doing good work with a festival that benefits charities, and he won't begrudge anyone who attends the festival, but he can't support them because of their contributions to Walker's campaign.
John Brown, who is "not wild about brats," was there because his daughters wanted brats. He remembers protesting the Vietnam War, and has mixed feelings about events like Saturday's. He said he didn't expect to see so many people smiling at the festival.
Brown said when he saw the first protest against Walker and his budget, it brought tears to his eyes. But he's disappointed that reactions like this haven't occurred in Madison in response to other issues like the Iraq War.
Brown sat jangling a tambourine with a picture of Walker's face with a red line through it affixed to the tambourine head, which he brings to all the rallies he attends.
"These are scary times," Brown said. "I'm just trying to keep a sense of humor."
Keeping a steady beat throughout the entire People's Bratfest, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., were Hallis Mailen and Felix Bunke, of the budding organization Solidarity Drums for Peace.
Mailen, who is also affiliated with Veterans for Peace, said the drumming group was formed to "help bring the passion back into the rallies."
Dunbeck said the best aspect of the People's Bratfest was that the money was going back into the community "doublefold." He said the Autonomous Solidarity Organization is trying to restore the marketplace of ideas.