Madison’s Solidarity Sing Along, Two Years In
Two years ago on March 11, 2011, Scott Walker signed into law one of the most explosive pieces of legislation in Wisconsin history: Act 10, the massive budget repair bill that did away with all meaningful collective bargaining rights for public sector workers.
That same day a small group of social justice activists decided to maintain their opposition to Walker’s regressive policies by singing protest songs in the Capitol rotunda over the noon hour. Armed with photocopied songbooks containing ten songs, they took to the rotunda and sang for an hour, singing each song twice.
They came back the next day and sang again -- and again and again every weekday for the following two years. If you count all of the weekend and afternoon sings, they add up to more than 600 events. The songbook has grown to include 48 songs – familiar tunes with original, Wisconsin-related lyrics – and there is a special 41-song holiday edition, as well.
The defiant voices of outraged citizens raised in song have become an odd hallmark of the Walker administration, reminding them and other supporters of the corporate agenda they are ramming through Wisconsin government that they do not have the consent of the people.
At the height of the massive protests against Act 10 in early 2011 when the Capitol building was occupied for over two weeks and crowds in the tens of thousands surrounded the building, Walker predicted that once the bill was passed into law the protesters would go away. To a depressingly large extent, he was right.
The energy from the uprising was largely redirected by the Democratic Party and union leaders into the recall of Republican senators that summer, and then the recall of Walker himself in early 2012.
A group of US Uncut activists continued organizing direct actions at banks and multinational businesses that don’t pay their fair share of taxes throughout the spring and early summer of 2011, and there was a “Walkerville” encampment around the square that June just before the budget passed.
Despite the continued assault on voting rights, women’s rights, free speech, immigrants, native treaty rights, environmental protections and public education, there have not been any more mass demonstrations matching the turnout of early 2011.
But the ever-changing group of singers who show up at the Capitol rotunda every day at noon have been holding that space as an active site of dissention and public education with their feisty energy and new lyrics to songs that reflect the most up-to-date excesses of the Walker regime.
The singers themselves have been the targets of these excesses. Beginning in September last year after a new chief of Capitol Police was hired, participants began receiving citations and were sometimes arrested for holding banners and for being perceived leaders of the group that refuses to get a permit for the gathering. Hundreds of these citations have now been dropped with only a few working their way through the court system.
Recipients of these citations point out that the Capitol rotunda was intended to be a public square carefully designed for citizens to voice their concerns to their government. Therefore, their songs expressing political views ought to be protected by the First Amendment and by the Wisconsin state constitution, and they should not be required to obtain a permit in order to express those views.
Yesterday, on the second anniversary of the Sing Along, a few of the original singers were in attendance. They were joined by a few dozen other regular participants and some visitors from Belgium. The event began a few minutes late because a young Chinese couple was getting married on the first floor. The group waited to begin until their ceremony ended.
Though somewhat beleaguered (who would have thought they would still be here two years later?), those gathered yesterday remained stalwart in their purpose, and vigorous in the carrying out of it. In the lyrics of “We’re Not Going Away” sung to the tune of “I’ll Fly Away,” they asserted:
Our voices echo through the rotunda
We’re not going away!
Until the people rise up like thunder
We’re not going away!
The question implicit in the song is one that has vexed many of the Sing Along participants for months now: when will the people once again rise up like thunder? When people finally do rise up in large numbers, they will have the Solidarity Sing Along to thank for the continued open access to the Capitol building, and for a rich repertoire of original protest songs to sing.
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website.
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