Voices of the Wis. Uprising
On the Fourth of July, I spent the afternoon with seven other Wisconsinites addressing a group of out-of-state visitors in Madison for an Elderhostel program called Madison Senior Scholars. The two hour session was entitled, “This Is What Democracy Looks Like: Voices of the Uprising.” It was organized by Heather Dubois-Bourenane, author of the blog “Monologues of Dissent,” which began as a collection of letters – mostly unanswered – to Governor Scott Walker.
At first it seemed like a tough crowd. Dubois-Bourenane was peppered with questions about state budget numbers. One woman asked if the panel included a Walker supporter to provide balance. Dubois-Bourenane then explained that we were not there to debate, but to present our stories about what has happened in Wisconsin over the past year and a half and how we got involved in the struggle.
I explained to the group that the political upheaval in Wisconsin was not a partisan dispute between Democrats and Republicans, but a genuine uprising of hundreds of thousands of people who were mobilized by the extreme agenda being rammed through our state at breakneck pace. I described the three-day-long public hearing on the Budget Repair Bill that sparked off the occupation of the Capitol, where tens of thousands of people showed up to testify about the devastating effects it would have on their families and their communities.
But it was not only the content of the regressive social and economic policies passed by the Walker regime that people came into the streets to protest. It was also the autocratic and secretive manner in which these policies have been foisted upon us that we opposed and continue to oppose. In a state with long traditions of open government and citizen participation in democratic institutions, Walker’s high-handed style and duplicitous rhetoric was truly shocking as well as highly divisive.
Peg Randall Gardner from the Milwaukee suburbs illustrated this point. She related the disdain that her state senator, Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), has for the public she is supposed to represent by this response to a question put to her about how she handles testimony in Joint Finance Committee hearings: “I never listen to what people say at hearings. It’s boring.”
Gardner went on to describe how her family has been affected. She and her Republican husband have four children, all of whom have been hurt by the huge cuts to public education. She talked about how challenging it has been to work out political differences within her family. When asked directly if her husband voted for Scott Walker, this is what she said:
“He was a Walker supporter and voted for him in 2010. He was determined to support Scott Walker up until November of last year. But our daughter is a teacher, and one of our sons is disabled. It started to affect his children and he could see what everyone was saying on a personal level. My husband signed the recall petition and voted against Walker on June 5.”
Bryan Bliss and Ryan Wherley discussed the importance of communication in the uprising and its aftermath. Bliss described the explosion of independent citizen journalists and bloggers. He described the impact they have had on public awareness of legislative initiatives and of the political forces behind them.
Wherley talked about the public space that opened up in a new way during and after the Capitol occupation. He characterized the crowds protesting at the Capitol as “the most diverse group of people I’d seen outside of a Badger game.” Of the atmosphere that accompanied the protests and that continues to prevail during the daily noontime Solidarity Sing Along, he said, “You could just go up to any random person and have a conversation. That doesn’t happen normally. That’s what has defined the whole movement.” People talking to each other about the important issues that affect them.
A regular at the Solidarity Sing Along and a member of the Madison chapter of the Raging Grannies, Marie Martini talked about why she continues to assert her point of view at the Capitol. “We use humor and song to deliver political messages. People are divided and arguing all the time, but it’s hard to argue with someone who deliberately dresses like this. We will continue to sing and fight back until our grandchildren have the state that they deserve. It’s not the state that they have now.”
Beth Gehred and Walt Christensen from Jefferson County shared their experiences working on the state senate campaign of Lori Compas. They talked about how Compas’s campaign energized people in the district and discussed how she was able to mobilize a small army of extremely loyal volunteer supporters in the absence of any meaningful financial support from the Democratic Party. Despite this historic independent effort that garnered 32,870 votes, Compas lost to her opponent Scott Fitzgerald who had the full backing of the Republican Party, and access to tens of thousands of dollars from outside of his district.
Gehred’s message was a somber one: “It shouldn’t be all about money, but we have now become one of those states, to my great sorrow. We are losing control of our most beloved democracy when money drives politics. It’s actually taking from us the thing we need the most.” She urged the group to pay attention to and fight against the undue influence of money in politics.
Wrapping up the session, Dubois-Bourenane emphasized the grassroots, popular nature of the uprising, and the lasting effects of this broad mobilization of people from throughout the state. “Making sure your voice is heard isn’t optional any more,” she observed. On the failure of the recall of Scott Walker, she noted that even though he survived the election, Walker’s policies of eliminating collective bargaining rights for public sector workers and the severe cuts to public education are still deeply unpopular with the people of Wisconsin. She suggested that we find new ways to make sure this message is heard: “My hope is that people on both sides will see how people have been shut out of the political process and create new ways of coming together in a more productive way.”
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.
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