Reflections on the Year of Protests

By Callen Harty
Solidarity fist
Solidarity fist. (Sat, 3/19)

The end of the year is traditionally a time to look back and reflect upon the previous year, to think about what events ultimately had meaning, and to look forward to creating a new reality in a new year. Often when we read the year-end summaries in newspapers we find there are a lot of things that happened that were quickly forgotten, even when they seemed important at the moment. Sometimes there are things that maybe should have been forgotten that are still in the collective consciousness. Other events take on greater meaning with the passage and contemplation of time. On a smaller scale the same thing happens in our own lives—the argument that was important enough to talk about for weeks is forgotten by the end of the year, but something that seemed like a minor event still has an impact months and months later and grows in significance as time moves forward.

For me—and I’m betting for many Wisconsinites—this past year was monumental. There were political events that played out here that had an impact that still resonates and those events are still growing in their significance, not just for Wisconsin, but for the whole country. Much of my year was consumed with the political ramifications of the Wisconsin Uprising back in February and March, when tens upon tens of thousands of citizens descended upon the State Capitol to protest the policies of new governor, Scott Walker. Most of those protesters left after the Republicans snuck the bill through by removing the financial elements from it, nakedly revealing their true intentions. But some of us continued fighting throughout the year, and at various times during the year masses of others came back several times. The protests never ended despite the wishes and pretensions of Walker, his fellow Republicans, and the media.

The protests were not all that occurred in my life in 2011. There were significant personal events as well. I jumped out of an airplane for the first time. I flew a helicopter. I saw several great concerts and met or photographed several famous people. I was there when the Packers came back to Green Bay with their championship trophy. I had articles published in Our Lives, Life After Hate,, and The Progressive. I had photographs published in several places. For the first time one of my plays (Invisible Boy) was produced outside of Madison. I had a car totaled and replaced. I had a book accepted for publication. My youth theater group, Proud Theater, expanded to another city. I worked with my state Representative to introduce a bill in the Legislature—it’s in the draft stage right now. I took trips to Benton Harbor, Chicago, Omaha, Dubuque, San Antonio, and various places in Wisconsin. I lost and gained people in my life. But despite all that, when I look back at 2011 I will remember it as the year of protests. It was what defined the year and it was what consumed me from mid-February through the end of the year and will continue into the next.

To be honest I was not a fan of Scott Walker from the beginning. Before he got into office he had already made it clear that he was going to turn down federal funding for high-speed rail and that he wanted to change wind power rules in a way that would make it more difficult for firms to develop wind power here. Both of those decisions would cost the state jobs despite Walker’s claims that he was going to create a quarter of a million new jobs. Already by January Walker had introduced legislation to build upon wetlands in Green Bay, to make it more difficult for people to sue large companies, to reorganize the Department of Commerce into a semi-private organization (with non-union employees instead of the previous state employees), and to start giveaways to corporate benefactors through a package of tax breaks. When I went to the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration at the Capitol in mid-January I was tempted to stand up and turn my back on him when he spoke, but decided against it out of respect for the event. Those bills all passed the Legislature by the end of his first month in office.

In mid-February Walker introduced his “budget repair” bill that caused the firestorm of protest that followed at the Capitol. The bill essentially gutted state employee unions, leaving them with virtually no power to collectively bargain. But in addition the bill also allowed Walker to sell state heating plants in a no-bid process and set up the demise of Medicaid. The bill made it possible for a Legislative committee, headed by Republican supporters of Walker, to end or reform Medicaid in whatever way they wanted with no input from the full Legislature or the public. Walker’s head of the state health department had been quoted in the past as saying that Medicaid should not even exist. If the bills passed in January hadn’t been signal enough, the “budget repair” bill clearly signaled a conservative assault upon much of what was important to Wisconsin citizens. I contend to this day that if Walker had introduced the bill in a normal manner and let it go through its normal legislative process most of the state wouldn’t have noticed until it was too late. People typically don’t pay attention to budget deliberations. But he introduced it in a special jobs session and insisted that it be passed within a week. It made people wonder what was up and caused a closer look from the public than it might have gotten otherwise.

By late February the budget itself was introduced. It cut education funding by one and a half billion dollars and prevented local governments from raising property taxes to make up the difference. Walker continued to talk about the “tools” he had given municipalities to help them out, but one local school district after the other announced they had to lay off teachers and other personnel. The only ones who used the “tools” the bill provided were school districts in conservative communities that used the language of the bill to further erode unions in their districts.

But for me the battle was never just about the unions. While I have always supported unions and appreciated what they have done for the working class of this country, the bills that Walker and his cronies pushed through were about much more than just the unions, and the way they pushed them through was not the way of open and honest government in Wisconsin. Debate was cut off, Parliamentary maneuvering was used to rush or silence votes, and the public was allowed little to no input at all. Walker and the Legislature assaulted the very foundation of our society and undermined the compacts by which we had lived for decades. The governor was out to destroy unions, social safety networks, and any other progressive tradition that he could while the Republicans had control of the governorship, both houses, and the judiciary. Some of those conservative battles—to overturn the ban on the death penalty, as well as to fight against queer rights and reproductive freedom—are yet to come, though there have been early signs such as the refusal to defend the state’s domestic partner registry in court and the cutting of funding for sexual assault services because of real or perceived ties to Planned Parenthood and abortion services. To me the Walker agenda was an all-out assault on our proud progressive tradition and on the working class and poor of Wisconsin and he had not campaigned on what he was suddenly proclaiming a mandate.

Most people think of the February 14 Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA) delivery of Valentine’s Day cards to the governor’s office as the first protest because of John Nichols’ repeated use of that story in his speeches during the course of the protests. But I have a note from February 13 about a protest that had been held on Saturday, February 12, only one day after Walker introduced the “budget repair” bill. While it may have been small at first, people reacted quickly to the bill and day by day the protests grew. By February 15, I felt I needed to be part of it. I felt called to be there. I asked my boss for the following day off of work to go protest and was given the okay, so Wednesday, February 16 was my first day at the Capitol protests. On that day thousands of other people showed up. It was probably 10,000 or so. Soon it grew to 40,000, then 70,000, all the way up to somewhere between 100,000-150,000 people protesting at the Capitol. After my first day there I ended up showing up at the Capitol virtually every day after that, on weekdays and weekends, with the exception of a couple weeks when I was ill and when I was absent due to trips out of town.

My purpose was two-fold. I wanted to be there to protest what was happening to my state, but I also wanted to document the reaction to it. As a result I have thousands of photographs and quite a few essays and notes about all of it. As a protester I was one of thousands. I’m sure there were many people who showed up every day who were among those thousands and who were never noticed. Their names will never be recorded in the histories of what happened. But each of them was important to the movement. Without them it would not have been possible. My involvement became more noticeable as others went back to their jobs and their homes and some fighters remained behind. Most of the ones who remained fighting every day, even after the fourteen Senators had come home and even after the “budget repair” and budget bills had passed, ended up becoming friends. It became a beautiful family of protesters.

Sometimes a person feels called to do something. An inner voice or spirit simply puts it out there and a person has to respond to the calling. Being a man who had a life-long fear of singing in public I would not have thought that I would start to sing by myself every day in the Capitol rotunda, but it was one of the directions my protest muse took me. At the time, back in the latter part of March, several protesters had been getting arrested every day for holding signs in the public space on the first floor of the rotunda–not in one of the offices or closed off areas. My niece was among them, as were Jeremy Ryan, Valerie Walasek, and others. One day while they were there with their signs I wondered if a protest song would cause a citizen to be arrested or whether the authorities were concerned only with the signs. So I got a couple friends to join me in a rendition of “We Shall Overcome”. We did not get arrested. But I felt the power of the song and within about a week I had started to sing the song by myself on the ground floor of the Capitol. I have been doing it virtually every day since. It became well-known enough that I was asked to sing the song for the “Thunda Around the Rotunda” rally on April 30. I went from being afraid to sing in front of people to leading more than a thousand people in song.

Musicians marching up State Street
Musicians marching up State Street. (Sat, 3/19)

The protests against Walker were not the only protests and rallies happening, either. Throughout the year I attended numerous other rallies, including the Day of Silence march, the annual gay pride rally, several civil rights rallies, peace demonstrations, a housing rights rally, May Day, immigrant rights, and an anti-Nazi rally in West Allis, among others. What I noticed this year was how many of the people at each of those rallies were also part of the demonstrations at the Capitol. Something I had always known was confirmed for me–that the battle for queer rights is the same battle as the one for racial justice, the struggle for immigrant rights is the same as the struggle for union rights, the desire to raise the poor from lives of poverty is the desire to raise all of our humanity higher. This is what the whole concept of the 99% is all about—that we are all in this together, but that in order to win justice in this world, we must all work together toward that goal. The demonstrations at the Capitol were ultimately about social and economic justice, not about Scott Walker.

I also traveled a bit, attending anti-Walker protests in Whitewater, Janesville, Devil’s Lake, Green Bay, and as far away as Benton Harbor, Michigan. They told the same story as all of the other rallies I attended. We could all see that our battle was Benton Harbor’s battle, which was New York City’s battle, and Seattle’s, and everywhere else where the Occupy movement took hold midway through the year. Wisconsin led the way to a nationwide movement which continues to this day and which does not seem to be ebbing in any way, despite police crackdowns, raids, and false arrests. In fact, the more the police crack down the stronger the movement seems to become.

I was threatened with arrest three times in 2011 and I had never before had so much as a moving traffic violation. The first was for singing “We Shall Overcome” in the Capitol rotunda without a permit. I finished the song and then had a long discussion with the officer about my rights of free speech. He disagreed with me, but didn’t really have a legitimate legal reason to do so–and that kind of cop can be a very dangerous cop, when they try to enforce laws they don’t understand or do so out of political motivations rather than legal ones. I followed that up by contacting my State Senator, Mark Miller, and the Capitol Police Chief, Charles Tubbs. In the meantime I continued my daily song, except I did it with lyrics on poster board and my mouth taped shut. Several of the Solidarity Sing Along singers joined me and gave voice to the song while I displayed the lyrics. Chief Tubbs met with me and a staff person from Mark Miller’s office about half a week later. I arrived at the meeting with a packet of material, including Constitutional snippets, the entire Department of Administration code on building use (which was much shorter then), and more. I pointed out inconsistencies in their own policy and let him know that while I came to the meeting without an attorney I had one ready to file suit over the possible violation of my Constitutional rights. A couple days after that the Chief called to tell me he had informed his officers that it was okay for me to continue doing what I had been doing. I believe he knew that I would pursue it and he would lose a court case. I removed the tape the next day and have continued singing the song with no incident since that day.

The second arrest threat occurred on August 25, when a group of protesters refused to leave the Capitol building. I was not one of them, but I stayed in the building to photograph and videotape what I was sure would be the arrests of several protesters. After the last of them had been hauled downstairs Chief Tubbs had an officer go around the room and get the names of all the press people who had remained behind to document the arrests. I had told him I was with the press because earlier in the evening I had introduced myself to Matt Rothschild of The Progressive when I saw that he was there taking notes and I had asked Matt if he wanted me to e-mail him photographs. He had given me his card and said that he’d be particularly interested in shots of the actual arrests, which he also knew were coming. I took that as good enough to say I was with the press. But Tubbs announced that if he found out anyone who stayed behind did not have official press credentials they might very well be arrested in the following days. I explained my situation to the officer taking my name and never heard more about it. I believe that Tubbs remembered me from our earlier meeting and wanted to give me a little scare.

Later in the year I was finally arrested for the first time in my life–for videotaping the proceedings of the Assembly from the gallery. There had been a couple weeks of protesters getting arrested for carrying signs, photographing, and videotaping in the Assembly gallery. That night eighteen of us were arrested for standing up for our Constitutional rights. The Wisconsin open meetings law allows the public to photograph or videotape public meetings, and the official Assembly rules don’t prohibit it, but there were other rules posted at the door stating that it was not allowed. All eighteen of the cases, and virtually every other arrest that has been made since the protests started in March, were dismissed.

Now that the recalls of Governor Walker and Lieutenant Governor Kleefisch are in gear, I am collecting petition signatures for that. On Christmas Day I received one of the best gifts I have received in years when I visited my 86 year old mother, a lifelong New Deal Democrat, and got her to sign both petitions. This is where my focus is right now, and that will shift to the campaign after the recall petitions are turned in and verified. And still I go to the Capitol virtually every day to sing four verses of “We Shall Overcome”. It does my spirit good and keeps my mind on the target, which is not the recall of Governor Walker, but the pursuit of equality for all, regardless of color, orientation, degree of wealth, or anything else. This movement is about so much more than Scott Walker. It is about the heart and soul of my state and my nation.

A peace flag and a line of riot police

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