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The Capitol Was Ours

It was not a stuffy statehouse. The doors were always propped wide open from every direction, east, west, north and south; we would breeze from the bright outside into the glowing rotunda of the Wisconsin State Capitol building. Our gaze would soar up the sides of the dome, and even the most cynical among us would feel real pride, reverence. Between the echoes, the padding feet and whispers and giggles of schoolchildren, the capitol stone reverberated with, 'I belong to you'.

In the summertime, we would kick off our shoes and pad across the cool marble, skipping barefoot on the floors of the capitol building. We used to do cartwheels in the rotunda as teenagers, or spin like dervishes under the dome until we got so dizzy we collapsed in giggling heaps. We would even hoot like owls and loons in the capitol halls, entranced by the echoes. The police would barely shrug. We weren't rowdy kids. If they needed to approach us, the cops would sidle up with an embarrassed demeanor. The police knew the capitol was ours.

Yet over the last month, white-haired grandmothers have been arrested in the rotunda on a near-daily basis, in the dozens, just for singing together. As recently as Thursday, August 15th, 22 people were arrested for singing in the Wisconsin State Capitol rotunda, including 3 Raging Grannies and the first elected official to be arrested for participating in the Singalong. Also arrested were a 14-year-old girl singing along with her mother, and a woman with flowers, singing on her birthday. The Editor of The Progressive magazine was arrested for covering the singers, while merely attempting to take a photograph of one of the grandmothers:

I said I was a journalist, the editor of The Progressive magazine. "You can't be here," they said. "I'm with the press," I said, "I have a right to be here."

"Whereupon, without a warning that I'd be arrested, Officer S.B. Mael grabbed my hands and put them behind my back, cuffed them, and said, 'Obstruction'...'This is getting absurd, guys,' I said to the officers, who refused to engage with me."

Ever since the occupation of the Capitol came to a close, Wisconsinites have been gathering there for Solidarity Sing Alongs to continuously demonstrate Wisconsin's progressive, pro-labor presence. Weekdays at noon, they have held their ground and fostered “a place where Union members, activists, and citizens can come together and rejuvenate their spirits through song as we continue the fight against Governor Walker and his republican allies.” But in April of this year, Tea Party Governor Scott Walker's henchmen started enforcing new "emergency rules” forcing groups of 20 or more to get a permit to assemble in the Capitol building.

The Solidarity Sing Along folks weren't about to ask for permission to assemble in their own damn Capitol building. So they kept on singing as an act of civil disobedience.

Progressive Roots

Nothing is taller in Madison, Wisconsin, than the state capitol building – nothing except an Ojibwe sacred site, a single drumlin left behind by a glacier moving through the region during the last ice age. From this lookout, two lakes wing a thin strip of land, an isthmus. At the center of the isthmus rises a neoclassical model of the capitol in D.C., built of immense blocks of sparkling white Wisconsin limestone.

The city's Progressive-era planner envisioned unobstructed views down the main strip, State Street, which led from the state's center of education (the University of Wisconsin at the top of Bascom Hill) down to the center of governance at the crux of the isthmus (the State Capitol building). The state's next wave of citizens would study high on the drumlin, and with the halls of governance always within eyeshot - always with a mind to their civic obligations.

During the Vietnam War, University of Wisconsin-Madison students took that obligation very seriously, and occupied Bascom Hill with protest, camping out on the lawn in front of the Chancellor's office nearly 24:7. Madison was known as the Third Coast, the midwestern hub of 60s activism along with Chicago. What little remained of the mainstream attempted to accuse outside agitators from the East Coast of fomenting Madison's '60s uprising. But the movement was actually homegrown. Wisconsin had long been the heart of the progressive wing of the progressive movement: the notion of free public education beginning in kindergarden, the idea of an independent corps of public servants, of transparency, of public welfare, Social Security and medicare, all came out of Wisconsin. Wisconsin Governor Gaylord Nelson helped found Earth Day in 1970, which at the time was a radical day of action that helped to ignite the environmental movement in the early 70s.

After the heyday of the movement had passed, a bunch of the fraternities fringing the lake fell into bankruptcy and were taken over by activists who turned them into housing co-ops which kept Wisconsin's counter-culture alive throughout the 70s and 80s. It was through the co-op scene that kids like myself, far from the frontlines, came into contact with the remnants of the 60s revolutionary ethos. I moved straight out of my parents' house into a co-op situated in the first Mayor of Madison's house, and took bubblebaths looking out the window at the Capitol dome. A simple and in some ways luxurious, life.

Madison had a good thing going. It was a city in which you could grow up feeling you had a lot to protect, in much the same way that the Quebecois and the Indignados have public health care and free education systems to fight for.

It was a much bigger fight though, if you were a person of color. Wisconsin offered among the most extensive benefits in the country, and become a so-called “welfare magnet” for poor folks fleeing “inner city” joblessness and violence in nearby Chicago. However, these newcomers to Madison were hardly welcomed. Public housing projects were built far out on the outer periphery of town, at the end of the bus-lines. Then Tommy Thompson got elected Governor in 1987, on an anti-welfare platform with explicitly racist undertones. Against a decade of opposition, he eventually managed to institute his idiotic pet project, Work Not Welfare. (Thompson's anti-welfare legislation has since been exported globally; in Israel, it's called The Wisconsin Program).

Resisting privatization of our strong public institutions and fighting the corporate homogenization process started to take up a lot more of our time. In part due to the remnants of the Progressive ethos built into the city's planning, we managed to stave off the takeover of our city by chainstores for decades. Then in 1996 Money Magazine declared Madison the best city in America in which to live, and in less than a decade our city's population doubled. In a few years, the city sprawled beyond the cheese factories on the edge of town and gobbled up farm after farm. A brand-new voting block accepted a downtown gentrification agenda replete with anti-vagrancy ordinances, the redesign of one of the main gathering points for demos during the 60s, and unnecessary spending on the redesign of Madison's civic center.

But we still had it good enough locally so that we could concern ourselves with what was happening outside our little insular “utopia”. We looked around the world, from the mountains of Nicaragua, to the sweatshops of Southeast Asia, to the killing fields of East Timor, to the free trade zones imposed under NAFTA, to the villages and urban centers of Iraq. As Clinton invaded Iraq and unfolded his neoliberal agenda in the 90s, everyday Madisonians and radicals around the country foresaw everything that we are living out today: outsourcing of jobs, the takeover of our government by corporations, the destruction of the State by consolidated multinational power, climate change. When I was growing up, demonstrators marched down State Street to the State Capitol building regarding every issue under the sun, at least once a month.

In 1998, students occupied the Chancellor's office for days, calling for an end to the University's purchase of sweatshop goods. As a Big Ten school with a major football team, the University of Wisconsin boasted among the largest enrollment levels in the country – that's a lot of jerseys. I missed a week of classes with no penalty – my professors supported the occupation. (A side-note: The anti-sweatshop movement was at its most militant in Madison, but of course, 15 years later, if you google “sweatshop movement” and “Madison”, you'll come across a children's hip hop and breakdancing school, an indication of how incredibly far my hometown has to go on multiple fronts).

Beyond the Legacy

“2011 was not the first time the capitol has been occupied, not even in my lifetime,” my brother, Ben Manski, reminds me. Ben was one of those active in the anti-sweatshop occupation, the fight against Scott Walker, and pretty much everything in between. He remained in Madison pretty much constantly since we moved there in 1983, so his protest memory is long. “There were occupations of the state capitol over the corporatization of welfare, over abortion and over mining in the 90s. There was the anti-apartheid occupation, and it was small and successful, that one. And it was a touchstone that people refer to still, in Madison.” According to my brother, there was also a student occupation of the capital in 2000, winning students a tuition freeze, the only freeze in Wisconsin history. In 2003, there was the Books Not Bombs occupation, as part of national student strike, when 5,000 students walked out from universities; Wisconsin's was the second largest walkout in the country.

“In 1995 there was the May Day mobilization for a People's Budget, just over a thousand people, that included mainstream groups, and people marched on the Chamber of Commerce” recalls my brother, “and it was almost the genetic forebear of what happened in 2011. They were reacting to cuts in public funding for welfare, and tuition increases (which were much less significant at that time). And they were reacting to Tommy Thompson's doing-away with the public intervener, the checks on corruption.”

When I visit Madison now, the atmosphere is unprecedentedly glum. “It feels like Wisconsin is under Occupation,” I say to my brother. “Is that at all accurate?”

I remember that at 1:00 a.m. on February 22, 2011, while many Democratic Assembly members were out of the room, the newly elected Tea Party "leadership" of the Wisconsin State Assembly suddenly barred further public hearing and moved quickly to pass the so-called Budget Repair Bill.

Via an unannounced vote, the Tea Party essentially eliminated collective bargaining for most of Wisconsin's public employees, outside the democratic process.

The vote lasted a mere 5-15 seconds, the bill language was read hurriedly, and many Assembly-people reportedly pushed the voting button as hard as possible but their votes did not register. A flurry of Democrats, who had not been given notice that the vote was about to happen, entered the room as the vote was being cast. In the end, the vote was 50 in favor and 17 opposed (including 4 Republicans), with 28 representatives "absent". After 60 hours of debate, fewer than half of the Democrats had been able to cast their vote.

"Did that really happen?" I ask my brother, still outraged. "It's well-documented," he replies steadily. These kinds of dirty tricks have become so commonplace, that my brother can't muster any surprise:

Essentially people feel like the Wisconsin government is being run by by extremely right-wing capitalists from out of state. Sure, we have our own right-wing capitalists in Wisconsin; but it's not local right-wing capitalists running the show at this point, it's multinational capital.

He continues:

"You see the evidence that this was a takeover by outsiders, when you look at who spent money on getting Scott Walker elected – it was extremely lopsided in terms of out-state money going to Walker – essentially Twenty to One.

The clearest evidence that this was a takeover lies in the reaction of the people. The people of Wisconsin almost instantly rejected Walker's agenda. Because there was absolutely no mandate for this agenda: Walker didn't campaign as a right-winger, he ran as a moderate. This isn't what even Republicans thought they were voting for.

I think people in Wisconsin did everything they were supposed to have done in terms of the democratic process. They marched in huge numbers, engaged in nonviolent direct action all over state. Student sit-ins happened everywhere, and they occupied the capitol, of course. A sector of the economy was shut down due to the school strikes. The majority of Wisconsinites voted against the austerity agenda of Scott Walker: They recalled enough state senators to realign the balance of power; They got over a million signatures to recall the governor; In 2012, the Republicans lost the popular vote by almost 8%. They pretty much did everything short of violence.

So, from the nonviolent revolutionary textbook, Wisconsinites did what they were supposed to do, yet the state government belongs to someone else. The problem in 2012, is that elections don't work! Especially since the form of gerrymandering employed has become so extreme. You cant even vote them out of office anymore!"

Not a nostalgia piece

I don't want to be nostalgic. Because only certain kinds of people can afford to be nostalgic about a place like Madison, which is not necessarily so utopic a place to grow up if you're brown. And because yes, the capitol building was constructed on Ojibwe land.

I don't want to be nostalgic. Because what we Madisonians, we Wisconsinites have going for us, is only under extreme threat – it's not yet gone.

I don't want to be nostalgic, but I am. Because when I was a kid, you could do all sorts of joyful and imaginative things in the Wisconsin State Capitol building. On giddy class trips to the Capitol, schoolteachers would invite their students to lie down in a circle on the clean marble floor at the center of the rotunda and gaze at the olive and gold mosaic dome high above. In soothing tones, they would begin to paint a picture of the time before this capitol building existed, and how the State of Wisconsin got its start. And the Capitol security guards would listen in earnestly as teachers taught the next generation that the capitol belonged to them.

Walker's Capitol Police Arrest Teenager, Grannies, & Sitting Councilman for Singing Together

New York City has its own singing direct action crew, and you can join with us this coming Monday!

It's called Everybody Now! and we will be having our next Encounter in the assembly room of Judson Memorial Church in Washington Square, at 7 pm, August 17th, 2013. Join us as we take our singing Encounters to the street! We will be discussing how to organize singing actions that effectively assert our right to assemble, not unlike the Solidarity Sing Along in Madison.

Please come and raise your voices with us!

Rebecca Manski
Lady Forward, at the top of the Wisconsin State Capitol Building. A symbol of the Progressive movement.

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Lady Forward.