Wisconsin Protests Rejuvenated by Crackdown on Singers in Capitol

Mike Elk

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, 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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