Today I sang after work, but had something else going on at 6:00, so I decided to wait around and see if Ryan would be there to sing. When I came back into the building I saw him up on the first floor with two other friends. As I looked up they started to sing “We Shall Overcome”. I went up the stairs to join them in song. What better, more joyous way to speak our concerns? What more peaceful avenue of protest could there possibly be? Who could resent the beauty of song as a way to say, “I love my state and I’m sorry about what is happening to it, and I must sing truth to power?” Well, as anyone in Wisconsin knows the conservatives in charge of the madhouse that is now our Capitol despise it. In the last two weeks there have been about 200 arrests of people for singing, from an octogenarian couple to a 16-year old boy, from young women to old men, from rich to poor, well-dressed to shabby, clean-shaven to bearded, good singers and bad, and everything in between, a microcosm of the farmers, merchants, miners, businesspersons, and others who make up this great state.
When I sing by myself I do not face arrest, because one is less than a group of twenty, the number Capitol police have erroneously and unconstitutionally determined constitutes an unlawful assembly. When Ryan and a couple others show up there are no arrests because two, three, or four are still less than twenty. You might sense if the right person is on duty that they would love to get the handcuffs out, but they cannot, at least for now. So there is none of the tension, stress, and absurd antics of the Capitol police late in the day, and there are generally few people there to hear the lyrics drifting through the marble halls and settling like dust on the empty desks of legislators who don’t want to hear anything that contradicts their conservative notion of the world.
Today the place was fairly full. There were several couples and small groups wandering around, a large group of people being led on what appeared to be a private tour, a couple families, a few straggling employees, and one cop who looked like the last thing he wanted to hear was any kind of protest, even in song. When I sing I never know how people will react. Sometimes they applaud, sometimes they give thumbs down, most of the time they pretend I’m not there because it’s easier to ignore the protest than to engage and find out what the issue might be. Today the four of us who sang late in the day had several incredibly different reactions to our singing.
As we were singing “We Shall Overcome” a thin woman with fiery eyes kept looking at us from across the rotunda. As we were finishing she, her husband, and little boy came walking by and she said, “How can you sing such hateful stuff in front of children like my son?” I was stunned. “We Shall Overcome” hateful? Even with the added Solidarity Sing Along lyric of “Walker won’t be governor” it is hardly a hateful song. It is a powerful song about hanging onto hope even when oppressors are crushing you under the heels of their boots. It is about patiently waiting for regime change and a better day. It is about taking the high road of wanting to walk hand in hand, even with one’s enemies, and living a life of peace and love even when all you face is hatred. She said something about her little boy getting to meet Scott Walker and Paul Ryan and how great that was for him, then Ryan said something about how Scott Walker told Diane Hendricks that his goal was to divide and conquer. She practically screamed at us, misunderstanding him and thinking that he had said her boy had met this woman. I looked at her and said, “And see, it’s working. You’re calling us hateful without even listening to what we’re singing or saying.” She said something else about the horrible lyrics we write and that she had taken a picture of us that she was going to post online so that everyone could see the hateful things going on in the Capitol, then something else about her boy. I generally don’t goad people, but I couldn’t help but say, “I hope your son outgrows your politics.” She responded with, “I hope you outgrow yours.” It was not very original, throwing back pretty much the same line, but I let it go. She walked away, catching up to her husband who–though I think he agreed with her political opinion–seemed embarrassed by her expression of it.
We continued singing. It is in song that we find strength. By that time she was gone. A man in a suit was standing about a quarter of the way around the balustrade watching and a family of four was in the corner silently watching also. Ryan sang “How Can I Keep From Singing” and the man applauded loudly, as did several others scattered around the first and ground floors. As another song started the boy from the family of four gingerly approached, with his parents and sister coming a few steps behind him. He looked like he wanted to say something so I stopped singing and stepped over toward him. He looked at me and asked, “Can I ask why you’re singing?” “Yes,” I answered. By this time his parents had edged up alongside him. “For the last two and a half years there have been people protesting Scott Walker every day because of policies that we think are hurtful to poor people, workers, common folks like me and most others.” The mother spoke up, “We heard he doesn’t like unions.” I answered, “No, he doesn’t. He has tried to destroy them, but not for economic reasons, but because they are among the biggest donors to the Democratic party. Of the top ten campaign donors nationwide a couple years ago, seven were conservative groups and three were unions, so he wants to destroy the unions so the Republicans have even less opposition. He’s also worked to destroy Medicaid, Badger Care, opening up sales of state property for no bids, and on and on.” It turned out they were from Illinois. They never indicated where they stood politically, but I gathered from their nods of understanding that they supported us in what we were doing.
As we were getting close to wrapping up for the day the large tour group came back out from the direction of the governor’s office. They were all very well-dressed in nice suits and ties or dresses and looked like they might be lobbyists and it looked like they might be getting some kind of private tour. As they were huddled in a group opposite us we were singing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and I could see several of them looking over our way. I couldn’t tell if they were irritated or okay with us. They finished that part of the tour and started heading around in our direction. After the first couple passed a man in a black suit looked at us and gave us a thumbs up. A couple people more passed and then another man said, “Beautiful singing,” with a nice smile on his face. A third one tapped my shoulder and said, “Thank you.” The last man in the group reached out to shake my hand and looked me in the eye as he said, “Don’t ever stop.” As he started to walk away I stopped him and said, “Excuse me, who are you? What is your group?” He took a business card out and said, “I’m from Canada. We’re legislators.”
I found out later, when I bumped into him again as he walked past a homeless shelter protest a block away, that he was one of four legislators from Canada at a conference in Madison for Midwestern legislators. He talked about how he appreciated what we were doing and how important it is to keep up the fight. He mentioned that there will be haters as he took his glasses off to show us a scar on his forehead that he earned in the Philippines while working as a labor lawyer. I could tell he earned his scar and carried it with pride. We have earned our own scars from handcuffs around wrists, as well as emotional abuse from people like the woman who called us hateful for singing with our hearts, and we are okay with that. How can we keep from singing? We can’t. The songs will carry us through. The scars will be meaningless when we ultimately overcome.
I sent an e-mail to thank the Canadian legislator who showed us such support the other day when we were singing in the State Capitol and sent him a link to the blog post above. Late yesterday he wrote the following back to me:
“Sing, please keep on singing, for all of us.
“Just posted your blog on my facebook timeline.
“It was but a snippet of time when you and I (and Mr. Spalding) met on the street.
“It was my honor to have heard and seen you. God bless America!!!”