President’s Day at the Indiana Statehouse was busy, colorful and loud.
Hundreds of red- and green-clad constituents gathered at two separate rallies in support of public education and state forests. Their chants, cheers and boos echoed to the ceiling two stories above.
“This is one of the best crowds I’ve seen since being at the Statehouse,” said Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, in his remarks at the state forest rally.
This first rally, organized by the Indiana Forest Alliance and called “Stand Up for Your Forests,” was scheduled to begin at 11:30 a.m., according to its Facebook page. Activists milled around and munched on bananas, CLIF Bars and PB&J sandwiches.
IFA’s rally was especially pertinent because of the introduction of Senate Bill 420, which would set aside 10 percent of each state forest as protected “old forest areas” if passed. Tables behind the crowd were filled with copies of the bill and petitions for supporters to sign.
The IFA has mobilized against an increase in logging in state forests in the last decade or so. Numbers show that from 2001 to 2015 the amount of trees sold at the Department of Natural Resources has increased nearly sixfold and the money loggers have paid for these trees has gone up about fivefold.
Attendees of the IFA rallies wore green T-shirts to show support for the trees and brought all kinds of signs.
One sign said, “Have we learned nothing from the Lorax?” referencing a famous Dr. Seuss fable that warns of the dangers of cutting down trees.
Other signs said “science teachers support SB 420,” “our forests=our heritage,” “I speak for the trees” and “our mother needs us.” Activists waved their handiwork high and flapped green bandannas, handed out by the IFA, when they cheered.
To the side of the chairs set up for listeners, children sat on the floor, surrounded by paper and markers. They crafted their own signs while artists strummed folksy music on guitars.
One boy, named Reece, began to color in the outline of a tree underneath a few lines of text he’d written himself.
“Save the trees, the trees will give us all we need to survive,” it read. “So why kill them?”
Reece said he likes the forest because it’s natural and because he can climb and explore it.
And because it “keeps us all alive.”
Someone wearing a full-body tree costume swayed to the music and walked down the row of children. The human tree was a big hit with the kids, many of whom jumped up to get a picture with it.
“Maybe we should set aside some of our forest so it can naturally adjust to changing climate, and find out what happens to it,” Stoops suggested, to the hearty agreement of his crowd.
Chris Marks, an IFA member who testified at the initial hearing for SB 420, was back again, this time with her pound cake. One slice of the cake was set aside from the rest to demonstrate the 10 percent activists are asking legislators to preserve compared to all that would still be left free to log and manage.
Close to Marks in the front row sat IFA Executive Director Jeff Stant, wearing a green tie with small trees printed on it.
At one point, the audience stood up in support of the trees.
“We are all trees today,” said John Gibson from Earth Charter Indiana, a sustainability nonprofit. “I’d like to have you stand and be a tree.”
Everyone rose in silence and raised their fingertips toward the ceiling.
On the other side of the Statehouse, public education advocates came fired up and clad in red.
They began to gather and eat lunch around 12:30. They filled plates with brownies, sweet onion slaw, rolls and pasta salad.
Talks at the “Celebrate Public Education” rally, organized by the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, were set to start at 2 p.m.
Representatives came from the American Federation of Teachers Indiana, the American Association of University Women, the Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis, the Indiana Parent Teacher Association, the Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education and the Indiana State Teachers Association, among other groups.
One of the rally’s organizers, Marilyn Shank from ICPE, said the group reserved the space for the event last summer. It grew in size when other groups said, “we need to do something,” Shank said.
While the overall political climate has been encouraging of activism in the past few months, the public education climate has been bad for years, Shank said.
Some red T-shirts at the rally said “#ProtectPublicEd” or “A child is more than a test score.”
Glenda Ritz, former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction, was also in attendance, mingling with people before speeches began. Ritz, much beloved by public school advocates, was defeated in an upset during the 2016 elections by current Superintendent Jennifer McCormick.
“I <3 My Public School!” read one sign from the crowd.
Some signs also made references to Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s newly appointed and controversial Secretary of Education, and one of her most-criticized statements.
“Grandma grizzlies support public education,” one sign said, playing off a comment DeVos made saying students in Wyoming may need guns at their schools to protect them from bear attacks.
“Demeaned... Devalued... DeVos’d...Nevertheless, our teachers PERSIST,” another sign read.
Also in attendance was Vic Smith, founder of ICPE.
Attendees booed at mentions of voucher programs and enthusiastically chanted for both Smith and Ritz when they were introduced.
Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer, chair of the Monroe County ICPE and active advocate for public education, amped up the crowd when she spoke.
“My children are not widgets in a factory,” she said, and the crowd whooped and cheered. “I send my children to public schools for them to learn to become citizens for a democracy.”
At one point, everyone rose together and locked arms and hands, standing in unity.
Around 50 minutes after the speeches began, emcee Joel Hand rushed to the podium and told the crowd he had some exciting news to share.
The full crowd hushed in anticipation.
It was about Senate Bill 179 — a bill that would give the governor the power to appoint the superintendent of public instruction rather than the position being an elected one, as it is today.
It was discussed in the full Senate Monday .
It was defeated, Hand said.
The people in the crowd jumped to their feet and cheered more loudly than they had yet.
Glenda Ritz stood, her face red with excitement, and pounded both her fists in the air, a full grin spread across her face.