Dubbed “Ferguson to Madison,” the rally drew striking social parallels between the two cities.
Last week, Governor Scott Walker stood before a joint session of the Wisconsin State Legislature and announced that he intends to slash the tax bills of Wisconsin's wealthiest citizens and create an investment program that helps usher school children and people with disabilities into low wage jobs.
Walker called this plan his "Blueprint for Prosperity," which amounts to a laundry list of income and property tax cuts that offer a little bit of savings to less-wealthy people, and a whole lot more to the rich, while also promising to help fill jobs that are going unfilled of late due to the low wages on offer.
The public galleries were packed with Walker's friends, family and cabinet members, the usual gaggle of corporate lobbyists, legislative aides, and, because Walker said so, a group of motorcycle enthusiasts. Walker even invited several people on stage and described them as "the faces of employment." While the group did not include a single non-white individual, it did include a convicted felon with a sexual assault charge on his record.
Every time Walker mentioned tax cuts, the Republicans would leap to their feet in a frenzy of hoots and applause. Democrats stayed in their seats, weighed down by the heavy knowledge that Walker's cuts really mean degrading Wisconsin's public schools even further, offering fewer people health care and kicking others off of unemployment.
Republicans cheer while Democrats remain seated during Walker's State of the State address. Photo: Leslie Peterson.
When Walker was first elected Governor of Wisconsin on November 2, 2010, he thanked God and declared: "Tonight I want to tell every worker, every family and every business big or small in this state that you have an ally in the Governor's office. Wisconsin is open for business!"
Repeating the "open for business" slogan four more times during his victory speech, Walker made it very clear that his administration would declare open season on workers and Wisconsin's natural resources for the elite "job creators" who invested so much into his campaign.
At the same time, Republicans managed to sweep both houses of the legislature, ensuring little chance that Democrats could block anything the extreme right wanted to do. The now-dominant fringe wasted no time implementing their agenda, either.
On the day after the election, Walker and the Republicans launched an all-out propaganda and legislative blitzkrieg on Wisconsin's labor, environmental, education, child welfare and public health protections, seeing them as a hinderance to fat cats and multinational corporations that want to make a quick buck in the state.
It began with stifling workers' voices and sabotaging their organizational capacity, in rules enacted by the notorious anti-union law, Act 10. Reaction to this shock and awe offensive was swift and thunderous, particularly in Madison, but that uprising and the recall it triggered were not enough to halt the rightwing advance.
Their plan has relentlessly unfolded over the ensuing years, sparing very little of what Wisconsinites once held to be politically sacred.
Whole state agencies have been consumed by politics through changes in their administrative rules. Wisconsin's voting districts grew increasingly gerrymandered. Environmental safeguards have been shredded and the Department of Natural Resources' ability to enforce what remains lies in tatters.
Public education budgets have faced historic cuts on all levels, save but for the building of a pipeline from high school to low wage jobs. Unemployment and medical assistance programs have also been cut to the bone, and new rules were added that ensure thousands of otherwise-qualified citizens are no longer eligible.
Campaign finance rules have been eroded, giving corporate donors closer access to our government than ever before; meanwhile, we have less access to polling places, and women are facing the prospect of having next to no access to abortion services in the state.
Walker's speech was slickly crafted to make it seem as if Wisconsin is much, much better off under his heavy hand than his predecessor, Democrat Jim Doyle. But the actual state of the state after years of extremist rightwing policies is uneven, even for those who would seek to plunder the lives and resources of the state for their own personal gain. With every success they have achieved for the billionaire class, slashing benefits, safeguards and hurting the weakest among us, they have engendered a growing pushback that cannot be discounted.
While school districts throughout the state are suffering devastating budget cuts and the loss of highly experienced and qualified teaching staff, efforts to massively send taxpayer money to religious and corporate private schools have been defeated. Some of the more heinous proposals to curtail the right of Wisconsin women to manage their own health care have faced a similar fate in the legislative dustbin.
While a growth in low-wage jobs in Wisconsin helps Walker's talking points, it does not do much for Milwaukee and Racine, where unemployment and poverty rates are skyrocketing, especially for African Americans.
Communities in western Wisconsin are being overrun by frack sand mining operations that pollute the air with ultra-fine particulate matter, and they are rapidly expanding across the state -- fewer than a dozen existed in 2009, but there were over 115 by 2013.
In central Wisconsin, factory farms the state calls "Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations" are sucking whole aquifers dry and playing hell on our lakes, rivers and drinking water supplies.
In the northern part of the state, the rights established by treaties between the U.S. Government and native sovereign nations over 100 years ago are now routinely violated by the state on behalf of a mining company. That same mining company is asking permission to obliterate a 22-mile stretch of the Penokee Hills, near the shores of Lake Superior, in order to extract low-grade iron ore.
Meanwhile, we're choking on a mainstream media culture that's constantly pitching our neighbors on mere distractions, even as the institutions of our state melt down before our very eyes.