Song of Protest

After being threatened with arrest for singing.  Photographer unknown.

After being threatened with arrest for singing. Photographer unknown.

This week marks two years that I have been going to the Wisconsin Capitol to sing four verses of “We Shall Overcome” to protest the Walker administration and the takeover of our state by corporations. I try to make it every day, usually around 4:45 on weekdays, but it can vary depending on when I can leave work, and on the weekends it’s whenever I can get there. Sometimes I miss a day or two or even a week if I’m out of town, sick, called to meetings, or other unexpected things come up. But I try hard to make it every day.

Most days it’s a pretty lonely protest. The building is somewhat empty by almost 5:00, tourists have already moved on back to their hotels or cars, the rotunda echoes with every sound or voice. Oftentimes those who are there walk by or continue talking or taking photos and it is as if my voice isn’t being heard at all. I never know if it’s because they don’t like the message, they don’t know how to react, or if there is something else going on, but I just keep singing. Sometimes, like Thursday, a single person out of the crowd will applaud and raise a thumbs up. Occasionally everyone within earshot will stop and listen and applaud afterwards, as if they thought it was a scheduled concert or something.

There have been times when I’ve been joined by other protesters or total strangers, and these are often beautiful moments of sharing solidarity. There have been other times when I have been threatened by aggressive people who apparently don’t like my message, or the Capitol police, who almost a year and a half ago threatened to arrest me for singing without a permit. After that I showed up for several days in a row with tape over my mouth and signs about the threatened arrest and I would stand there flipping signs with the song lyrics on them. Many of the Solidarity Singers joined in during that time and sang the words while I showed the lyrics on poster board. That situation was resolved with a meeting between myself and the Capitol Police Chief (Charles Tubbs) and a representative from my Senator’s office (Mark Miller).

Sometimes I’m ready to stop and then something will happen to remind me why I am going. The Department of Administration will propose new rules limiting free speech in the Capitol or the Walker administration will propose a new law that is anethema to the people of Wisconsin. And so I keep going, hoping that my voice will remind legislators that we are watching them, that the fight continues even though the huge protests dwindled to a few diehards who sing every day at noon, myself, and those who still come daily or close to it with signs or voices.

I know that my letters to Scott Walker go unread, my chances to speak at hearings are limited under this administration because they either don’t schedule them or do so at inconvenient times and places, and I know that those who have temporary custody of the building do not want to hear my concerns. But I also know that all of them have heard my voice echoing through our seat of government. They have heard that call for justice and that declaration of eventual victory in the words of “We Shall Overcome”. And I know that those who have seats there that are on my side have also heard it and have said that it encourages them. So I will continue singing until that day that we do overcome.

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 (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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1 Response to Song of Protest

  1. Coni Gehler says:

    Thank you for your ongoing protest. I am from the far western side of the state and so I cannot go raise my voice at the Capitol. Please know that you are my voice, as well as the voice of so many others. I occasionally get to Madison. When I am in town, I will make it a point to look for you singing at the Capitol and, if we are there at the same time, please know I will show my solidarity (although my singing voice is really bad).

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