Waking Up to Democracy

Protest at the Wisconsin State Capitol, February, 2011. Photo by Callen Harty.

      One year ago today Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker woke up the sleepy citizens of his state when he introduced his “budget repair” bill that set off a series of protests at the State Capitol in Madison.  The protests started small, but kept growing until there were almost 150,000 people gathered on the Capitol Square, many of them chanting, “This is what democracy looks like!”  And indeed, it is.

     In the year between that announcement and today there have been countless protests, not only against the “budget repair” bill, but against the budget itself, new restrictive voter ID laws, a potential mining bill that could gut the environment up north, and bill after bill that gives money to corporations or takes money or rights away from common citizens.  There has already been one recall election in which two Republican Senators lost their seats and challenged Democrats retained theirs.  There are four more Republican Senatorial recalls that should be announced shortly, as well as recalls against the Governor and Lieutenant-Governor.  There have been confrontations, arrests, individuals who have stood up to power, groups that have sung or silently asserted their rights, the creation of the entire Occupy Movement, and more, and there are no signs of it abating any time soon.  Scott Walker really did wake the people up.

     Today there will be a 10:30 a.m. protest at the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce headquarters, followed by a march and noon rally at the Capitol that will last almost two hours, despite weather predictions of wind chills in the below zero range.  Wisconsinites are a hardy bunch and won’t let a little rain, snow, or freezing temperatures keep us from speaking out.  We understand that protesting is not just a right–it is a duty and a privilege.

     It is easy to sit in an armchair and scream at the television about the latest government idiocy, but just as armchair quarterbacks do not change the result of a football game, those who complain and do not get off their butts to work to change things do nothing to change political reality.  If you don’t like what your government is doing it is your responsibility to let them know it and to do everything in your power to try to change it.  After all, they are elected representatives, not elected overlords.  This includes voting, writing letters, protesting, talking to people and representatives, filing lawsuits against unjust laws, and creating alternatives.  Not since the Vietnam War protests have I seen the people of this state so mobilized.  We are doing all of those things and creating change by doing so.

     Common citizens who knew nothing of the political process a year ago are now sitting in on public hearings, closely watching their elected leaders, and holding them accountable for their actions and it has all had an impact on the behavior of these politicians.  Knowing they are being watched they are being much more careful about the way they act.  This new-found citizen involvement in the process has changed the way things are done.  For example, it is likely that a year and a half ago there may have been a handful of environmentalists fighting against the mining bill that recently passed through the Assembly and is now being rewritten in the Senate.  It would likely have passed through both houses with little notice.  Today it may not get through the Senate and if it does it will be after much rewriting and amendments based on citizen input.

     We are changing the world, one person at a time, one day at a time, and we ae doing it because we are standing up and speaking and we are getting involved.  We are no longer just letting a handful of people change the rules to benefit themselves and their corporate benefactors.  Representative democracy allows (or perhaps actually encourages) citizens to sit idly by and watch others create laws and the world they want without regard for what the people want.  True democracy requires involvement and action.  It requires citizens to be a part of the process at every level.  It requires an informed electorate that is willing to stand up and say no, or to stand up and lead the way.  This is where the citizens of Wisconsin are today and we are taking our state back because of it.  We can thank Scott Walker for the wake-up call, but we can thank ourselves for not staying asleep once we received it.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on Amazon.com (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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