Every weekday at noon for the last year and every Thursday late afternoon for the last several months a group of Wisconsin citizens gathers together either in front of the State Capitol or inside the building in the rotunda. Sometimes it’s a handful of people, sometimes it’s a hundred or more. The purpose of gathering is to sing as a way to protest the regime of Governor Scott Walker, who has led the Legislature through a year of rolling back rights for unions, aid for the poor, money for schools, and more. It is a way to remind the legislators and the general population that there are still many citizens unhappy over the direction of the state. While we wait for the recall elections to happen in three months, which we hope will unseat Walker and several of his associates, we sing.
It is a joyous and peaceful way to protest. Instead of yelling at enemies, instead of physcial violence, instead of anything negative it is a positive and beautiful way to find community and to share hurt and hope in a constructive and creative way.
Today when the singers arrived at the Capitol there were hundreds of students, teachers, and parents from Sheboygan Lutheran High School, mostly clad in yellow shirts. They were apparently there to have a picture taken at the rotunda and they had a permit to do so at 5:00. The Solidarity Sing Along started as normal at 4:30, but it quickly became anything but a normal day. While two dozen singers lifted their voices in song hundreds of voices from the floor above, circled around the entire railing, did their best to drown out the singing. At times they chanted pro-Walker slogans, at other times they just yelled or lifted their voices to try to cover the singing. Some of them came down to the ground floor and acted out by entering the middle of the circle of singers to dance or to sit on the floor.
I believe it is absolutely their right to protest the protesters if they’d like, but I couldn’t help but think that teachers at the public school where I attended would not have allowed their students to behave that way. They would have asked them to be respectful of people who may have differing opinions and to let them sing. And we may have talked later about why the singers were there and what they hoped to accomplish. But today many of the adults with these youth were leading the chants and encouraging the students to disrespect the singers. I couldn’t help but think that this is representative of the dissolution of our culture.
It used to be that we could disagree about politics or religion, sometimes vehemently, and still go out for a beer or coffee together. We could acknowledge each other’s humanity and understand that there is a reason our friend or neighbor has a differing opinion, and it doesn’t necessarily make him or her evil. Somewhere along the line all civility has been lost. From rude and screaming talking heads on radio and television to legislators who refuse to compromise or bend their will in any way there seems to be an aversion to civil discourse. Today there is little or no dialogue from any side. Instead, insults are hurled, voices are raised, backs are turned. How can I expect you to come to my way of thinking if I won’t talk with you, if I call you dirty names, if I won’t engage in real discussion? How will I come to yours if the only thing that you can say to me is that I’m stupid because I don’t agree with you?
There are people who simply won’t talk with members of a different political party or different religious persuasion any more. They will only talk with people who agree with them already. What kind of a world is that? How can they grow? How can they expect me to grow if they think that I am wrong? One cannot live in that kind of cultural vacuum without becoming myopic.
Again, I stand fully for the First Amendment right of these students to do what they did today. I would fight for them to maintain that right. But just because you have a right to do something doesn’t mean it is right. I do my best to engage those with a different political persuasion in honest discussion. It is by far the more difficult way to go, but worth it when connections are made. Granted, it’s a lot easier to raise voices on both sides until nothing is heard but a cacophony of invective. But that doesn’t move anyone forward. We need to move forward together, even if we don’t fully agree.
I kept thinking that I felt bad for any students in the midst of all those yellow shirts who might have a different point of view, because there was clearly no room for that, from either their fellow students or from the adults. I was hoping that one of them would step out of the group and express their own viewpoint, or that one of them would ask a serious question about why we were singing so that there could be a conversation about that, and conversely about why they were supporting Scott Walker.
At one point one of the young high schoolers came into the circle and sat on the floor as if he were meditating, but it ultimately appeared to be nothing more than making fun of some kind of idea of protesters or hippies as a way to impress his friends. As he sat there I moved over to him and took a similar pose, then lifted my two fingers in a sign of peace to him. I was hoping we would connect. Then other singers came over, still singing, and also sat down until he was surrounded by people singing out of the love of their hearts. Maybe it affected him and he couldn’t admit it, but instead of acknowledging the peace sign or the singing in any kind of real way he nervously got up and started doing some extreme dance moves and then moved uncomfortably out of the circle.
The singing continued. It did not stop today because of others. It got a little louder so that we could hear ourselves. But it did not stop. It won’t stop until there are some changes in the state, and I think that change has to start with building bridges. We cannot expect to come to compromise or any kind of understanding until we learn to talk again. In the meantime singing is a peaceful and joyous way to express what’s in our hearts.
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This made me think of Pete Seeger doing “How can I keep from singing?”