We Are Still Here

Protesters fill the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda in response to Governor Scott Walker's proposed "budget repair" bill.  February 16, 2011.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Protesters fill the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda in response to Governor Scott Walker’s proposed “budget repair” bill. February 16, 2011. Photo by Callen Harty.

Just over two years ago Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker introduced his “budget repair” bill which pretty much gutted the strength of public employee unions. It also allowed the state to sell heating plants and other state property to whomever they wanted with a no-bid process (meaning that corporate sponsors of certain candidates could get some good deals) and set the groundwork for undercutting Medicaid in the state (a program that Walker’s health director had been quoted as saying shouldn’t exist). Reaction against the bill was swift and strong, in large part because of its attack on unions, but also because of its other proposals. In addition some citizens felt that Walker had hoodwinked state residents during the campaign. While those who knew him before he became governor knew that he was no friend of unions, nowhere in his campaigning did he ever give an indication that he would introduce legislation like what was included in his “budget repair” bill. Further, this was the first time that he showed his prowess with making up numbers to justify his actions. Several others argued that there was no budget deficit that needed fixing. Finally, the way he presented the bill and tried to push it through in less than a week left no room for thoughtful debate, discussion, or citizen input on a bill that would ultimately change the structure of public sector unions in a major way. It was not the Wisconsin way. Nothing about it was. Wisconsin citizens on the losing side of elections will typically accept that they lost and know that legislation may be introduced that they don’t like. But they will not accept dishonest or deceptive government from any party.

Union and non-union citizens reacted strongly, descending upon the Capitol, historically the place for the public to come and express their opinions about their government and its legislation. Republicans cut off public input on the bill, leaving hundreds, if not thousands of citizens, out of the legislative process. The Democrats decided to continue unofficial hearings so that every citizen who wanted to would have a chance to speak on the bill. With the building left open for these hearings, thousands of people kept the Capitol building occupied day and night.

The bill was introduced on February 11. On February 13 a little less than 200 people protested at the Capitol. On Valentine’s Day, the Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA) delivered Valentine’s Day cards to the Governor’s office. The following day several thousand people showed up to protest. On February 16 I felt the need to be there and took the day off of work to join an estimated 30,000 others protesting the bill. The protests continued to grow until there were nearly 150,000 people on the Capitol steps and surrounding streets.

The feeling was exhilirating. To see, hear, and feel that many people speaking out against a piece of legislation was awe-inspiring. They stood outside through cold and snow for hours at a time and camped inside for days at a time. Though ultimately the bill passed through trickery and political ploys it was incredible to see the people power arrayed against it. The feeling of the power of the people continued throughout the legislative session and was probably responsible for the mining bill failing to pass later in the session. Although Walker survived his recall some of his Republican cohorts lost their seats in their own recalls.

Unfortunately, Walker and his Tea Party allies retained control of the both houses of the Legislature after subsequent elections, which pretty much allows them to pass whatever they desire this year. The massive numbers of protesters tailed off little by little, leaving the several dozen Solidarity Sing Along members to show up every day at noon and a handful of other protesters who still show up with signs or a song. It can be very difficult to maintain the kind of passion and momentum that existed two years ago, particularly when the system, through the legislature and the courts, keeps dealing blows to the people.

Still, two years later, many of those awakened during the Wisconsin Uprising are still fighting passionately for what they believe in and against those who would sell out the people of Wisconsin to outside corporate interests–whose only goal is to make money for their shareholders. There are still occasional and regular protests–against the newly reintroduced mining bill, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, Walker’s upcoming budget, and more. Those who still come to the Capitol regularly are passionate and have never given up the fight. Those who take part in the Solidarity Sing Along have been given dozens upon dozens of citations simply for gathering to sing songs and continuing the fight against the new plutocracy. Virtually every one of the citations has been dismissed because the Capitol is truly the people’s house and long considered a public forum. These patriots deserve a thanks from everyone in Wisconsin for their stubborn persistence in reminding the oligarchs who really owns the state.

I am still trying to go every day, too. I stand in the Capitol rotunda and sing four verses of “We Shall Overcome” after my workday. I don’t make it every day, but I do my best. For me, if our fight two years ago was a legitimate fight, then I can’t walk away from it. Walker and his compatriots in the Legislature are still selling out the state. They are still working on privatizing as much of the state as possible, including schools and prisons. They are still trying to pass a socially conservative agenda which doesn’t appear to coincide with most polls of the people of Wisconsin. They are still trying to manipulate voting to their advantage. They are working without consideration of the will of the people, still arrogant in the way they do it, and they still don’t seem to care about the law or social constructs regarding the way we do things in Wisconsin.

I will continue to sing and fight for justice. I will continue to keep an eye on proposed legislation and the impact it will have on my people. And while I don’t expect 150,000 people to join me and my fellow diehards again any time soon I do know that there are several hundred (and sometimes thousands) who are equally as passionate about protecting this state and I know they will be there whenever there is a good reason to be called back into action. And even though we are aware we cannot stop most of the bad legislation simply because of the numbers in the legislature and Supreme Court we can draw attention to the worst of it. Some day we may be able to look back and at least know that we did everything we could to keep those in power in check as much as possible. Perhaps a couple bad bills will be stopped, or some others delayed, just long enough for a more representative legislature to take its place. At the very least, we will be able to sleep at night knowing we made a stand.

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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