“This is an example of the banality of evil.”
On Wednesday night, activist networks were abuzz with news of the presence of Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder, Rep. Robin Vos, co-chair of the powerful Joint Committee on Finance, and Rep. John Nygren at a local bar in Madison.
Earlier in the day, Vos had presided over a controversial committee meeting. The subject: The Department of Administration’s request for an $8.1 million disbursement for security costs incurred by counties and cities that responded to the mutual aid request from the Capitol Police during the massive protests and Capitol occupation in February and March. Vos and State Sen. Glenn Grothman, who famously referred to protesters as “slobs” last spring, both called into question the reimbursement request from the City of Madison.
Background: The inner side of the capitol square is under the jurisdiction of the Capitol Police, while across the street is under the jurisdiction of the Madison Police Department.
Claiming that Madison Police deployed on the city side of the divide were just doing their job in their own jurisdiction, and furthermore, noting that the Madison mayor and Dane County sheriff had both made statements opposing the legislation being rammed through the legislature, Vos and Grothman argued that Madison’s request should be carefully scrutinized to make sure the state was paying only for those officers who were on the capitol grounds proper.
They also suggested they not pay Madison police officers who may have made statements supporting the protesters, and called into question whether or not they followed the orders of their acting superiors. Vos said, “I hope the Department of Administration will investigate the concerns about us asking people to be arrested and individual officers not making arrests.”
Democratic senators Lena Taylor and Bob Jauch and Representative Tamara Grigsby expressed their outrage at the Republicans’ comments and their proposed punitive actions toward the law enforcement officers who were at the capitol at the request of the Republican administration, and who spent a good deal of their time on duty assuring safe passage to those same Republicans through huge crowds of angry protesters.
Said Grigsby, “It is disrespectful, unprofessional and insulting to make the comments made here about the individuals who protected YOU more than anyone through the demonstrations. It is interesting that there weren’t too many complaints during that time, but now we want to go block by block to see who was helping whom.”
In the evening, as word spread about the whereabouts of Vos, Suder and Nygren, the three lawmakers were tipped off by a bartender that protesters might be headed their way and they decamped to another bar across the street. That didn’t stop the intrepid and creative Miles Kristan from tracking them down, however. Back in March, Kristan gained entry to a Republican fundraiser in Racine where Vos was conducting an auction. During the auction, Kristan threw a pink satin slip at Vos saying, “You all should have been fired. Here’s your pink slip!” Kristan was arrested and Vos proceeded to auction off the slip for $100.
The short notice on Wednesday night afforded Kristan little time to orchestrate a protest, but he allegedly made due with the materials at hand – a Miller beer. When Kristan and a friend with a video camera approached the legislators, the bartender told them to put the video camera away. Kristan then allegedly upended his beverage over Robin Vos, “indirectly spraying” Suder and Nygren, according to the police report.
Kristan was at large until Thursday afternoon when he and a group of supporters joined him in turning himself into the police. Crowds of reporters were there to feast on the story of the “brew-ha-ha.”
As I wrote about earlier this week, several people had been arrested in the Assembly Gallery for quietly videotaping the floor session on Tuesday. Four of them had been injured during their arrests. They took the opportunity of Kirstan’s impromptu press conference to point out the imbalance and disproportionality in media coverage of the two events – beer spilled on Republican legislators vs. roughing up and arresting peaceful citizens sitting quietly recording the proceedings of their government.
As news of the beer-tossing incident spread, Miles Kristan’s alleged actions were hotly debated over social networks. While many people praised them and some have begun raising money for his legal defense, others criticize them as destructive and unhelpful to the image of “the movement.”
Miles is one of a very loosely knit group of a few hundred activists in Madison who have kept up a consistent, daily oppositional presence at the Capitol and on the trail of Scott Walker and other Republican legislators. Through the Solidarity Sing Along and other activist organizing over the past seven months, these people have kept the spirit of resistance alive. As one person told me, “I’m here for the 100,000 other people who were with us on the streets in February and who would like to be here now but they can’t.”
We are bearing daily witness to the coup d'etat that has taken place in Wisconsin and that continues to be rolled out on a daily basis in dozens of ways in our communities. When citizens are not given a voice in their government and laws are made to silence and disempower us, and when the mainstream media does such a poor job of reporting on the radical corporatist agenda being implemented at such an alarming pace, acts such as pouring a beer over the head of one of the inner circle of conspirators and calling him out in public are tokens of resistance that draw attention to the fact that we’re still here and ready to fight.
Until a union, political party or some other form of leadership steps up to support and organize for mass workplace actions, these small acts of defiance are what we are reduced to.
Frankly, it feels embarrassing and pathetic that simply hearing about a silly prank like throwing a beer on someone in power or making fun of Scott Walker’s hairstyle with a Facebook page entitled, “Does this ASShat make my BALD SPOT look big?” packs such an emotional charge. But these are the responses of people feeling the weight of oppression who are determined to not submit.
To all the brothers and sisters who are concerned about the image of “the movement” and criticize the actions of Miles and other young activists who are willing to go to jail and put their bodies on the line for the cause of democracy and justice, please understand two things:
First, we are under a lot of stress. Coming to understand the complete and utter disregard for civil society and human life that characterizes the forces we are up against is deeply disturbing. The “let him die” outburst at the Republican presidential debate is an actual policy initiative here in Wisconsin.
Daily exposure to the hostile, combative atmosphere around the Capitol also takes a toll. A few months ago I wrote about an incident in which Sing Along members were assaulted by gun rights activists including former state senator Dave Zien who was arrested for disorderly conduct. Zien was back in the building yesterday. Out of his wheelchair and walking with the assistance of a cane now, he caught sight of Mike Dickman, the man who was assaulted back in June, with whom I and two other people were having a conversation. Zien came over to us full of wild-eyed fury, walked through the middle of our group within inches of each of our bodies, circled once and then walked back through the group and out of the building. That kind of hostile interaction with tea partiers or Republican staffers happens regularly.
Second, whether or not you see these acts of folks in Madison (or Milwaukee, Janesville, Beloit, Racine, Ashland, or anywhere else in the state Scott Walker has the balls to show up in public) as "criminal" or “unhelpful” is really beside the point. These acts are not done to curry favor with anyone, to build political campaigns, or to win popularity contests. They are fairly desperate expressions of outrage by people who are holding a cultural and social space until such time as others rise up in an organized, committed fashion against the destruction of the commons and our supposedly democratic institutions.
If we are going to make statements about the good of “the movement,” let’s make sure we are actively participating in and building a movement with understanding, compassion, and most of all, solidarity.
Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and as the President of the Dane County TimeBank.