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Working In These Times

Friday, Aug 23, 2013, 6:40 pm

Wisconsin Protests Rejuvenated by Crackdown on Singers in Capitol

BY Mike Elk

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The Summer of Solidarity Tour joins the Solidarity Singers at the State Capitol in Madison, Wis. (Summer of Solidarity Tour)  

Yesterday, the Summer of Solidarity Tour stopped in Madison, Wis. and visited the state Capitol. There, the labor activists joined the daily Solidarity Sing Along held by protesters at noon inside the Capitol each day since Gov. Scott Walker signed a controversial anti-union bill in March of 2011.

As folk singer and Solidarity Tour leader Anne Feeney struck up the chords of “Have You Been To Jail for Justice?” the crowd of 150-200 risked arrest to sing along with her.

The Walker administration issued a new rule last winter requiring that groups of four or more obtain a permit to gather in the Capitol. On July 8, a federal court issued a temporary injunction allowing groups of up to 20. Since then, Capitol police have cracked down on gatherings of more than 20 people—arresting people en masse on several occasions.

The Wisconsin State Capitol Police arrived shortly after yesterday’s protest began to place a sign in the middle of the crowd that read, “This event has been declared unlawful. Please move your group outside or disperse immediately. If you do not each participant is subject to arrest.” 

On past days, police have routinely moved through the sing-alongs, arresting people at random, according to South Central Federation of Labor President Kevin Gundlach, one of the Sing Along organizers. On some days, as many as 30 singers have been arrested, including, on one occasion, a 14-year-old girl. Since July, organizers say, over 200 people have been arrested.

 “Our state Constitution says that we can peacefully assemble and have freedom of speech, and I don’t believe that the administrative code trumps the state Constitution,” says Democratic Wisconsin State Representative Diane Hesselbein who was holding “office hours” by walking among the Solidarity Sing-Along Singers with a clipboard. “I think they just want control and they want to silence workers’ voices however they can. I think it’s a big overreach.”

Yesterday, the Capitol Police only arrested one singer, according to Gundlach.

Walker’s order may have been meant to stifle dissent, but activists actually feel that it helped to rejuvenate protesters have spent nearly two-and-half years protesting Walker.

“The sing-alongs have been going on for over two years, but gradually people were drifting away—and what he did [with the order] was to kickstart them and get things going again,” says former Wisconsin State AFL-CIO President David Newby. “It really has given people new energy and I think, new hope. And people need that because its going to be a long, tough slog to get back to contest the right wing in this state.”

The arrest also serve as a reminder of what could happen in America if someone like Scott Walker, who is rumored to be exploring a presidential run, is elected to lead this country.

“They are operating in a militaristic fashion,” says Newby. “You didn’t see it today but usually they march in formation into the crowd and surround somebody who already has been designated. [They] say, ‘You can leave or we will arrest you,’ and if they don’t leave, they will immediately arrest them. … The first time I saw this I really did have a whiff of fascism in this country.”

This is the third in a series by In These Times staff writer Mike Elk, who is traveling for two weeks with the Summer of Solidarity tour. To help In These Times cover his travel expenses and to send more reporters to cover grassroots activism around the country, donate here.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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