The “Armies” of the Day

11 May
Logo for the MSA-ASUM march on Jefferson City, MO

This logo was printed on the shirts given out for the MSA-ASUM march in Jefferson City, Mo., on Thursday, April 26, 2012. The march was in protest of higher-priced tuition for lower-valued education.

“I’m gonna go put this shirt on,” Chadde, pointing to the bathroom in the University of Missouri student center, told his friend Zach, who was checking Twitter on his phone. Zach nodded his head as Chadde took the black shirt the lady at the Missouri Student Association (MSA) booth had given him and headed in the direction of the men’s room.

In one of the stalls, Chadde replaced the tight-fitting V-neck wrapped around his shoulders and arms with the larger and looser T. He flipped the V-neck over his shoulder and pissed in one of the urinals. He was happy to report, since the lights were on, that he didn’t miss his target.* Having washed his hands, noticing the #MOREFORLESS lettering over his heart, and now drying them off with the air dryer mounted on the wall opposite the mirrors, Chadde looked at the back of the shirt.

“THE UM SYSTEM RECIEVES LESS FUNDING THAN IN 2001, BUT IS EDUCATING 17,000 MORE STUDENTS,” it read in yellow. MSA had started this campaign because many students abhorred the thought of paying more money for less education. Of course, tuition had not yet been raised, and it was unclear exactly what less education meant. Underneath the yellow lettering, “FIGHT FOR MIZZOU. WRITE YOUR REP.” was in white.

Chadde had already written his representative earlier in that spring semester – or, at least, he’d signed a form letter that was sent to his representative. He wasn’t directly involved in the coordination of any of the events leading up to and of today, April 26, 2012 – MSA was responsible for those. They had set up a discussion panel consisting of state representatives earlier in the month for students to come and ask questions (Chadde had not attended). MSA had also organized the letter-writing campaign that had been going on in the student center for the past several weeks. He believed in the cause, though, even if he truly didn’t understand the situation all that clearly. Tuition hikes, even the potential for tuition hikes, for students weren’t something to write home about, according to his parents’ bank account.

(A Storify post from the Maneater is available here.)

He joined Zach back at the table where they had been sitting and stuffed his V-neck into his backpack. They had been expecting more of their friends to come along with them on the trip to the capitol, but certain events had made them only a pair. Chadde’s roommate, Bo, who had enthusiastically spoke of making the trip just the night before, had learned that morning that a major in-class project would be happening at the same time as the rally. Their other two friends, Tom and Dan, had strict policies about not missing class. All three were out.

“Should we get on the bus?” Zach asked Chadde as the number of people hanging around in the same black shirts as the pair had dwindled near the MSA booth.

“Yeah, probably should since we’re the only ones going,” Chadde replied.

He shouldered his backpack, grabbed the waiver form (good thing he was over 18 because he would have needed a parent’s signature otherwise) and returned the pen he’d used to fill it out. He also pocketed the small slip of blue paper that served as the itinerary for the trip to the capitol; “fast facts” about the state of higher education funding were in concise sentences on the back. The slip of paper dubbed today the #MOREFORLESS March (the video is worth checking out). At the yellow school bus, he turned in his waiver and another guy checked off his name on a yellow legal pad. Zach followed suit behind him. Chadde found a seat near the front.

An older, dark-skinned man in a sports jacket, who donned a skinny rat-tail that snaked down his back to his waist, raised his voice and informed the half-filled bus that the students had to go two to a seat because they were hoping to fill this bus, one of three, first.

Zach moved over from the seat he’d taken across the aisle and sat with Chadde, who put his backpack between his knees. Several more students trickled through the door of the bus and found seats near the back. Chadde tried to get the man’s attention.

“How many kids signed up?” He asked, inquiring how many people had gone to the #MOREFORLESS March website sponsored by MSA and provided their first and last name, their email and their T-shirt size.

“One hundred and sixty.”

The short man turned away after he gave his answer. At 9:32 a.m., the bus Chadde and Zach inhabited revved its engine and proceeded to lumber down Highway 63 towards Jefferson City. Chadde couldn’t help but think of this half-hour drive as if it were an expedition from the blue urbanity of Columbia (where professors bicycled through the city streets), through the red sloping hills of rural Missouri (where the “ee” sound in the state’s name mutates into a drawling “ah”), to the white stones of the capitol building (where the two prime colors splashed the canvas in an uneven fashion).

On the bus ride, Zach and Chadde shot the breeze, and, from the tidbits they overheard from the people sitting around them, the other conversations on the bus did not focus on the “march,” either. The pair spoke of living arrangements for the next school year, fake IDs (or, more accurately, their lack thereof) and the benefits of having female friends who hung out with hotter girls than themselves. The actual rally was passed over very briefly early in the bus ride. Personally, Chadde hoped the term “march” in the title was an accurate description of the day’s events and not just alliteration.

For Chadde had an almost romanticized vision of how today’s rally against the specter of increased tuition was going to happen. He’d been raised on ‘60s protest music since before he could even remember. His father would blare through his small speakers Jimi Hendrix’s odes to anti-Vietnam War protests, the feedback-fuzzed “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock and the live, always-near-ten-minute “Machine Gun”; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s student protest anthems about the shootings at Kent State, “Ohio,” and the riot in Chicago, (the aptly-titled) “Chicago”; and Marvin Gaye’s social commentaries about race and class, “What’s Going On” and “What’s Happening Brother.” Chadde had digested books and films about the era feverishly. He wanted to see something like the things he’d read about in person. That’s why the Occupy Wall Street movement and the less-publicized marches on the Wisconsin state capitol excited him – true grassroots movements, just like the ones he read and fantasized about. He then wondered if tuition hikes were a comparable injustice to racial, class and gender oppression.

He was skipping his creative non-fiction class to attend this event. He’d emailed his teacher the night before, telling her his plan to get a final piece for the class out of the couple of hours he would be in the capitol. She’d emailed him back with this response:

“This is awesome! I’m glad you’re are going, and of course missing class isn’t an issue. You have had stellar attendance all semester–so no worries there. Be safe, Rachel.”

He’d thanked her for understanding, and then went on fantasizing about how the rally would play out. Even though he still held out hope, he realized there was very little probability of a riot. Regardless, he’d imagined student leaders on the steps of the capitol, megaphones in hand, talking to a charged-up group of sign-toting students who hoorayed at the appropriate inflections. Chadde had mused of writing a condensed, modern-day version of “The Armies of the Night,” Norman Mailer’s classic account of a disorganized march on Washington protesting the Vietnam War in October 1967 that landed the writer in jail for his participation in it. He had then felt guilty for comparing himself to Mailer.

“Jefferson City is pretty much just the capitol building,” Zach, who had interned in the office of democratic Governor Jay Nixon last semester, informed Chadde as the large dome, clearly visible over the tree line next to the muddy Missouri River, came into view from the highway. From the bus, Chadde couldn’t see anything out the bus window to refute his friend’s statement. A long, two-way avenue with grassy medians led up to the capitol, which stood in all its Greco-Roman majesty on top of a steep hill.

Front of the capitol building in Jefferson City, MO

This is the front of the capitol building in Jefferson City, Mo., on Thursday, April 26, 2012. The building was finished in 1917.

The bus swung around to the front of the white marble capitol building, ascending the hill with no little effort. Green carpets of grass cut through rectangles of concrete on the front lawn. Two cubic stone-and-glass structures, one housing the Senate and the other the House, straddled the towering dome. A bronze Thomas Jefferson stood erect atop a raised platform in the middle of a set of stairs that led up to a great wooden door.

“Quiet down!” The man with the rat-tail said, sounding like he was talking to elementary school students. “This is bus 78. Remember to get on the same bus when we head back to Columbia.”

Chadde left his backpack on the bus and followed Zach into the humidity of an 80-degree, late-April day.

“Black wasn’t the best color choice,” Chadde quipped to a nodding Zach. “I’m already sweating.”

Chadde had not yet given up on his fantasies of student protest on the steps of the capitol, but he noticed none of the students in charge were heading that way. In fact, confusion in the ranks seemed to be the cause of this temporary delay on the front lawn. The guy with the yellow legal pad was saying he didn’t know where the meeting place was supposed to be.

The man with the rat-tail had said earlier 160 students were coming, but Chadde saw only about half that number streaming from his bus and the bus that had parked behind it.

Finally, someone shouted that the meeting place was in the back of the capitol, near the river. The 80 or so black-clothed MU students slowly proceeded around the side of the giant building until they saw a gathering of similarly-dressed students at a small courtyard next to a bubbling water fountain. Chadde noticed then that their black T’s had a rotation of a few facts printed on the backs. Many had the same one he had, but others informed bystanders that Missouri ranked 47th in higher education funding per student and that MU could potentially lose as much as 20 percent of the state’s financial support that it already did have.

Back of the capitol building in Jefferson City, MO

This is the back of the capitol building in Jefferson City, Mo., on Thursday, April 26, 2012. The top of the dome is 238 feet above ground level.

“Let’s get some shade,” Zach told Chadde as the group arrived at the courtyard that overlooked the Missouri River. The pair moved under some overhanging limbs and immediately felt relief from the hot sun. Other students had already staked out prime real estate in the shade, but they were behind the wooden lectern stationed near the back of the courtyard. They had faces of boredom, as if continually asking the question of when this thing was going to start.

Another busload of students in the #MORFORLESS black shirts arrived and Chadde surmised the group probably did equal the aforementioned 160, or at least pretty close to it. He saw students with poster boards adorned with witty slogans and realized at least a small part of his protest fantasy was coming true. His favorite was the one that read “M-I-Z, PLEASE FUND ME.”

A little later, an older student in a suit came to the microphone at the wood-plank lectern. He told the group a few Congressmen who supported state funding of higher education would come and speak to them in a few minutes.

“In the meantime,” the suited-up student breathed into the mic, “talk amongst yourselves about the fast facts on your blue itinerary. We want to all be informed and ready to ask questions when we meet our representatives.”

The students returned to talking to their friends. A group of about 100 grade-schoolers sat on the back steps of the capitol, eating a mid-morning snack. Chadde had seen a similar group on the front lawn. He sighed resignedly. Having so many young kids around wasn’t conducive to any form of protest, Chadde thought.

“This says, ‘We expect the governor to support level funding in the operating budget,’” Zach said, referring to the blue piece of paper. “It’s because of level funding that we’re in this predicament.”

crowd at Jefferson City, MO

The crowd was tame in Jefferson City, Mo., on Thursday, April 26, 2012. About 160 University of Missouri students attended the #MoreForLess March.

Chadde looked at the crowd of college students as the first representative, a black-haired man who looked to be in his late 30s, approached the lectern. They formed a semicircle around the wood-planked object, allowing the two video cameras to have a clear angle of the speeches (the story begins at the 20 second mark). Students stood in respectful silence as the first speaker stammered out that congress had stayed up till 3:00 a.m. the night before, but they had managed to stop the proposed cuts for that year. A round of applause and a quick cheer arose from the crowd. Of course, zero cuts were not news, since the slip of blue paper read that both the House and Senate had already passed that part of the budget, but it was still nice to hear a representative say it. Then the black-haired man said he needed to get back to the House, which was still in session.

Chadde thought the next two representatives were forgettable. The old-white-man mold they did not break. They kept flashing their eyeballs down from their preprepared speeches up to the students. These two men blamed the governor for not providing citizens of Missouri with the education subsidy they knew was needed. They failed to mention that the governor was required by law to pass a balanced budget (level funding), and that cuts had to be made somewhere in order for him to abide. The second old white man, who walked with a Napoleonic complex, shook Chadde’s hand on his way back to the marble building.

The last one to speak was a member of the same mold. The last two speakers had been met with tepid applause, but this one knew how to get the crowd going. He spoke colloquially and advocated a “sin tax” on cigarettes that would fund higher education.

“You’re either for student funding and the smoke tax, or you’re against the smoke tax and student funding!” He intoned over loud clapping. The “you” was directed at the people in the capitol building. The man made it clear that the money raised from this tax would go directly to the subsidization of higher education for families with financial aid needs.

Chadde noted that all the speakers were Democrats. As much as the organizers of this rally stressed the non-partisan aspect of tuition hikes, it was hard to ignore that fact. Chadde wasn’t naïve enough to believe things could be accomplished without bipartisanship. After Senator Schaefer walked off, the students were broken off into groups of about ten. Chadde, who was registered to vote in Boone County, found the group who would meet that district’s representatives. Zach tagged along, unable to locate his voting district’s group.

Chadde’s group was led by Corbin L. Evans, a student leader of the Associated Students of the University of Missouri (ASUM), a non-partisan group that sprung up from the very ‘60s movements Chadde fantasized about. ASUM sent students, like Evans and the interns in charge of the other groups, to the capitol to lobby for student issues. Evans wore a black suit with vertical stripes. His hair was parted just so. Chadde thought he looked like he’d be the father in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesmen” when he was older.

Evans, who wouldn’t let a quiet moment pass, led Chadde’s group to a side door for the part of the building with the House of Representatives. Chadde stepped into a dimly lit room with smooth cylindrical columns lining each side. He could see that the large, dark hallway in front of them opened up into a voluminous chamber filled with sunlight – this was the inside of the massive dome he’d seen on the drive in. The ceilings in this room crept skyward, and the high windows framed the blue outside. A mammoth, circular hole in the middle of the chamber provided views of the bottom floor, and the railing around it served as a meeting place for teachers and their charges. Echoes from these touring schoolchildren bounced off the close walls in the dark hallway and also the high ceilings of the dome as Chadde’s group roamed through the building.

“That’s one thing about the capitol,” Evans said, making his way around the milling grade-schoolers and heading up a flight of stairs off to the left of the voluminous chamber. “There are always elementary and middle school kids running around…and middle school teachers yelling at them.”

After ascending three flights of stairs and leaving the throng of school children on the lower level, Evans led the group through another long hallway. The office doors of representatives lined the outside wall. Evans stopped in front of a large doorway behind which lay the House chambers. A few other groups of students were standing there already, waiting for the right representative to come out and engage the young minds of America. A noisy din from the talking students and the passing suits filled the space, making the rather roomy hallway seem suffocating, like too many people were forced into too small an area. Secretaries swung shut office doors as the students continued to chatter while waiting.

A group of four men with white hair walking shoulder to shoulder through the hallway passed Chadde’s group. They all wore dark slacks and light-colored, button-down shirts with wide ties. The one closest to the group had a slight stoop in his shoulders.

“This is why we shouldn’t increase student funding,” a voice from the group of old white men said loud enough so the group could hear. Whether he meant his comment about the students to be heard or not was left up to speculation. Evans tried to play it off as a minor problem.

“That’s just something that you have to deal with at the capitol,” he said. Luckily, he was saved from further damage control when a blonde, rather heavy-set man in a tan suit walked out of the nearby door and came into the students’ circle. He always had at least one hand in his pocket.

“Oh, here we are,” Evans said, slapping his arm on the man’s shoulder. “This is Representative Stephen Webber. He’s the second youngest – no, wait. You’re the youngest, right?”

“Yeah, I’m 25,” he told Evans, then turned to the circle. “I’m a full-time student at Mizzou’s law school so I understand how you guys feel about this.”

Chadde wondered how anyone could be a full-time law student and a full-time member of congress. He imagined the immense stress inherent in just one of those occupations, and couldn’t imagine how someone could stay on top of both. Zach, a political science major, would later inform Chadde when he brought this up later that Mizzou’s law school had dropped out of the top hundred in the country in the last few years. Webber was also a professor’s son, Zach would add later in the same conversation.

“Do you guys have any suggestions for solutions?” Webber asked after he finished up his short spiel on his position on tuition hikes. Webber looked around the circle until a blonde-haired guy finally uttered two words that the last senator to speak to them outside had ingrained into their skulls earlier that morning.

“Cigarette tax.”

“Yeah, the senators told us this morning about how the cigarette tax would work,” added Evans.

“Okay,” Webber said, sounding like he’d wanted another answer. He went on to tell the students that other options should be looked at. Don’t think that just the cigarette tax will be a cure-all, he told them.

A deafening buzzer sounded overhead then, signaling that the representative needed to make an appearance. Webber said goodbye to the students and walked back into the chamber.

“Okay,” Evans said. “Next we have Representative Mary Still. She’s Webber’s opponent in these upcoming elections but they both feel strongly about this issue.”

About a minute later, a short woman in a black outfit came out and joined the circle. She looked about 6o, her blonde hair streaking down to her neck in short threads. She told the students about her plan to increase the tax on cigarettes from 17 cents to 89 cents per pack. For the last five sessions, Evans would later inform the group of students, Representative Still had proposed a bill to raise the cigarette tax and nothing had become of it. That wasn’t a reflection of Representative Still – the policy makers in Jefferson City tended to be on the conservative side of things, and thus opposed to any form of tax increase. A few days after his visit to the capitol, Chadde would read an article about an initiative to raise the cigarette tax to 90 cents in Missouri.

“Missouri’s cigarette tax is the lowest in the country,” Still said. “The average is 90 cents. We could double our current cigarette tax and still have the second-lowest in the United States.”

(In the article he would read, Chadde would notice that Representative Still had sold the national average short – it was actually $1.46. A 73-cent increase per unit in revenue for the state would still help a lot though, Chadde would think to himself.)

“And we need that money for higher education,” Still continued. “In Missouri, the average income is $48,000, and, when a year of school is $28,000, that’s very hard for a family with two kids.”

The same buzzer sounded, beckoning her back into the chamber. She laughed at its clamorous noise.

“You kids are in an insane asylum,” she said, returning to the House with a wave.

“Goodbye,” Evans told her, smiling. He glanced down at his watch. “Okay guys, it’s almost time to get back on the buses, so let’s head back down.”

Chadde and the rest of the group walked single-file back down the three flights of stairs, across the voluminous chamber inside the dome and through the dark hallways until they arrived back at the side door at which they had entered. Evans kept talking as they walked out into the midday sunshine and back to the small courtyard where the old white men had blamed Governor Nixon for the tuition hikes. Evans said goodbye to them there. The other groups were beginning to congregate back there as well. Chadde saw some guys playing with the microphone on the wood-planked lectern.

“It’s funny how these tuition hikes come down along ideological lines,” Chadde said, turning to Zach.

“Yeah,” Zach replied. “But they all blame the governor, but he has to balance the budget. It’s the law. If he doesn’t have the money, he has to make cuts. At least with the cigarette tax the state would bring in revenue that would help subsidize higher education. But the Republicans are so opposed to taxing. Where’s the money for lower education costs supposed to come from?”

Chadde didn’t know. The situation seemed pretty simple in his mind. Raise taxes on cigarette packs up to about a dollar and use that revenue to directly subsidize University of Missouri students. However, if the majority of Congress didn’t believe in increased taxes, cuts would be made someplace else to help pay for subsidized higher education. Or, more likely, no cuts would be made and tuition would remain high.

“Plus,” Zach continued, “the cigarette tax is only an initiative and that means that, even if voters want it, congress can strike it down. And another thing, the districts are gerrymandered to set up perfectly for a conservative congress. I mean, we have a democratic governor but the legislature is 70 percent Republican.”

Chadde couldn’t argue with him. He felt the frustration in his friend’s voice. He had been hoping more people had felt that level of irritation and had been prepared to use it. No such luck, Chadde thought. He’d wanted some yelling. He’d wanted some politicians to sweat under their collars. He’d wanted someone to have to tell him and his fellow students to calm down. The whole event seemed anticlimactic. Especially after what Zach had said about Congress ignoring initiatives, Chadde felt like this whole “march” didn’t amount to much.

Only a few liberal policy makers had actually spoken to them, and Chadde had a sinking feeling that most people shared the same opinion as that voice that had passed them in the hallway outside the House chamber.

Student protests weren’t what they used to be, Chadde thought to himself, well aware of the irony of the thought bouncing around his 20-year-old mind. No one was injured, no one was arrested and no one was surprised about those two things. In fact, it almost seemed like a political stunt – like politicians had used university students to prove to their fellow politicians that voters would be receptive to a tax increase. Youth wasn’t protesting; youth was being exploited. And that happened all the time.

Back on the bus, Chadde concluded that the trip had been enlightening, even if it hadn’t delivered the blockbuster piece of journalism he’d wanted it to when he had decided to attend. Rolling back to Columbia, he knew more about the situation now than he did before he’d left, and that was good for him as a student. However, he still felt unsatisfied.

*Writer’s note: Near the beginning of “The Armies of the Night,” Mailer describes a scene in which, piss-drunk, he searches for a bathroom to relieve himself. He finally finds one but is unable to locate the light switch, but he can’t contain himself any longer. He ends up mostly hitting the floor. It’s a metaphor for how things would get out of hand during the actual march in Washington, D.C. In my above piece, I don’t miss the toilet, and that’s a metaphor for how things don’t get out hand during the actual “march” in Jefferson City, Mo.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like: Columbia’s Bookstore.

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2 Responses to “The “Armies” of the Day”

  1. ASUMissouri May 14, 2012 at 10:20 am #

    Rep. Still is running against Sen. Schaefer in the upcoming election not Rep. Webber.

    Good piece.

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