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Is the Tide Turning in Madison?

Readers are likely to know already that the elections of April 5 brought an apparent if narrow victory for liberal JoAnne Kloppenberg, in the ostensibly nonpartisan race for a State Supreme Court seat, over pronounced conservative (and ally of Governor Scott Walker), incumbent David Prosser. Running a poor second in the primary with only 25% of the vote, she won this time thanks to a state-wide mobilization aimed at overturning the effort to abolish unions of state employees, gut environmental restrictions, cut health care and redirect public school funds to private for-profit charter entities.

Readers are also likely to know that over a thousand labor-support events and several occupations of state capitols (including one ongoing in Olympia, Washington) have been inspired by events in Wisconsin, and the ILWU members halted all shipping out of the Bay Area for one day, Apr.4, in honor of Wisconsin unionists.

They are less likely to know that the state-wide mobilization has also gone over the top in rolling up recall petitions for several Republican state senators, thanks to assorted efforts but especially activists to collecting signatures around polling places on Apr. 5. Recall Rallies the next day in several small and medium-sized towns hailed these victories, announcing up to twice the number of required signatures. Wisconsin Democrats, officials to ordinary party voters, are involved but by no means in charge. Or that sometime 1970s and 1980s Madison mayor, Paul Soglin,  considered in those bygone days to epitomize the antiwar, long-haired, dope-smoking threat to law, order and propriety, has been narrowly re-elected, promising the Fight The Power.

And still less likely to be current with what we might call, with nineteenth century novelists, “Local Color.” That is, what has made the Wisconsin setting and events so stirring and so weird, all at once.

The saga of firefighters, prison employees and police marching together to oppose the governor and support state unionists, is by now familiar although so contradictory to expectations as to be upsetting to at least some out of town lefties come to look for themselves, and write.

The continuing occupation of the capitol rotunda is now weeks past and old news, although crowds and even musical instruments still come back in, on occasion (Sunday, Apr.3, for a Labor Singalong). And even the return of Jesse Jackson on Apr.4, the anniversary of the ML King, Jr., assassination, seemed like old news as it happened, down to the bulk of the speech he makes regularly on that occasion—and despite his being welcomed as a hero by the joyous crowd.

Something new and different unfolded on Saturday, Apr.2, in the continuing effort to come up with something interesting for the thousand or so folks who show up every Saturday around the Square with signs in hand—more when the weather is fine (Wisconsin Spring: this means sun and no sharp wind, whatever the temps.) Teenagers seemingly prompted their parents toward the Zombie Walk Against Walker, and the crowd swelled with face-painted kids of all ages along with others not embarrassed to look silly, moving along slightly out of control physically. Offering variations on now-familiar chants:

“What Do We Want?”
“BRAINS! BRAINS!

“Tell me What Democracy Looks Like!”
“Uh uh!”

and new home made signs, like

“If I Can’t Shamble Through the Streets and Eat Brains, I won’t be part of your Revolution,” [signed] Zombie Emma Goldman.”

This is a key to Wisconsin events, and not only in Madison but Milwaukee, Kenosha, La Crosse, and the distant northwest where Red Finns still mock capitalism. Like the signs of the early weeks,

Wisconsin Loves Beer, Cheese, Brats and Unions

Like the infinite variety of jokes about Scott Walker’s dropping out of college, mildly off-color jokes about hiding the state’s sheep when the Kansas-based Koch Brothers team came to town (or one of the earliest sign-gags about paying off his patrons: “The Money’s On the Dresser, Scott.”). These are part of the ongoing, never-ending but always good-natured competition for What Is Funny.

Literally thousands of Wisconsinites leave demonstrations trying to think of something fresh and funny, then more time stenciling or free-handing the lettering, sometimes adding color, sometimes paste-on images, sometimes working with silkscreen operators. Music is not heard often (except in fund- and spirit-raising shows around town, which are many) except for the bagpipe-and-drum kilted firefighters, but when heard otherwise, also often funny, oom-pah-pah bands, kazoo teams and drummers, with sometimes funky versions of University of Wisconsin football anthems.

Not everything is funny, of course. Union signs, especially but not only from out of state, tend to be entirely literal, announcing: we are here. Thus the half dozen or so African American ILWU members from Oakland, on Apr.l4, holding up their solidarity banner. Or two of the signs passed by AFSCME:

BLAME WALL STREET!

And

COLLECTIVE BARGAINING IS THE AMERICAN WAY

But mostly, the serious or semi-serious signs and banners also have a joyous central theme: We Are Wisconsin. Progressives have recovered a tradition and in that way, recovered themselves, who are they. On victory night, a speaker held up the inevitable fist and asked rhetorically: doesn’t it look like Wisconsin? It seemed to.

The struggle ahead is long and uncertain to offer a strategy to other states. But perhaps the tide is turning.

PAUL BUHLE is a historian. His books include CLR James: The Artist as Revolutionary, Radical Hollywood and Che Guevara: a Graphic Biography.

 

 

 

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Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.

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