At 11:40AM on Friday August 26 Fratney Street seemed as unremarkable as ever as I walked north towards the Art Bar on Burleigh Street in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. The only thing out of the ordinary was the line of school buses blocking the view of Messmer Prep and a well made-up Suit handing out water to the few passers by. What proceeded to unfold over the next 3 hours exemplified to me the strengths of Riverwest. This day we lived our ideals as Scotty Walker came to the neighborhood.
The Governor came to Milwaukee to showcase how the public can subsidize private and religious schools: the much ballyhooed Milwaukee School Voucher Program, the nation’s largest which has recently been expanded to Racine and will now not solely be given to low income households. Voucher plans, the brain child of right wing economist Milton Friedman, give parents public monies to spend at private schools in an effort to create more competition in the education “marketplace”. Friedman and his follower Walker worship all that is the “free market” and see the plan as a way to liberate education from pesky things like school boards (political democracy), unions (economic democracy) and well paid teachers and staff with their fancy “Cadillac health plans” and exotic pensions.
Riverwesterners in the hundreds greeted Scott Walker with the most combative and festive demonstration I have seen since the beginning of resistance to Walker’s plan to bust unions, slash education, cut transportation budgets and reduce funding for the poor and elderly. It’s no mistake that militancy was high as Walker entered what could arguably be the most progressive neighborhood in the state. Riverwest has a long bohemian tradition and during the large protests in Madison a group of local workers and students actually walked the 90 miles to Madison from the neighborhood.
The demonstration began as a normal picket for at least a half an hour but swelled to large rambunctious gaggle that would not be easily bullied by the cops who told them to get off the public side walk. The crowd politely, yet firmly, said no and the cops gave up that folly. The next moment of farce that had many rolling in laughter was the belligerence of Brother Bob (the President, CEO and Principal of Messmer Prep-he seems to like titles) who baited the crowd with bets about public funding of the school and with taunts of “God hates you”. He actually amped up the group and by 1PM or so the demonstration had picked up the volume as numerous neighbors began to unfurl banners with slogans in support of public education and jobs as well as blasting music out of their windows. One house in particular, owned by a member of the MTEA (the local Teacher’s union) that was strategically placed on the alley near the entrance to the parking lot, showed the colors of the movement in spades with numerous signs and an ample sound system serenading us with Billy Bragg and the Dropkick Murphy’s.
When Walker arrived the crowd was really primed and the hundreds swiftly rallied to try and block the alley with loud chants of “shame, shame, shame” (the slogan that Democratic State Assembly members used as the Republicans jammed through the collective bargaining law in a Special Session of the legislature).
We then set up camp in the alley as Walker read Dr Suess to the students inside. At this moment the cops decided they needed to intimidate the crowd and busted into the union members yard and randomly arrested a local trade unionist. The arrest got the crowd apoplectic with many militantly demanding a warrant and questioning the reasoning behind the invasion of property and random arrest. Camera phones and video cameras en masse were rolling as the crowd was having none of the bullying of the MPD. After the cops hauled the activist away the crowd quickly passed the number of the police station and Alderman’s office to protest the unjust arrest. He was quickly released with a ticket.
The action of the day then turned to the alley where Walker was to exit which turned tenser as the crowd saw the surliness of the police and wanted to show them that this was our neighborhood and we would not be easily cowed. As we waited for Walker to leave chants of “recall Walker”, “banks got bailouts and the people got sold out” and a crowd favorite, “Milwaukee cops, do what’s right and put away your guns and join our fight” reverberated down the alley as more and more neighbors came out with water and snacks for the crowd in acts of solidarity. The police had blocked the alley but the homeowner welcomed the crowd through her house and yard which incensed the police even more.
Real street theatre was unfolding as humorous stories were bandied about and the crowd grew strength as a result of their confrontation with the police. When Walker finally emerged from the building the crowd was at a fever pitch and he was visibly smirking as we greeted him with boos and groans.
As the event broke up the police once again targeted a demonstrator, a member of the Workers World socialist group, on a phony assault charge (the police said he had tried to trip a cop in the back yard during the first arrest-all which is on tape and clearly did not happen) which sent a number of people down to the local police station to protest the intimidation of the movement. In the police car one of the cops asked the activist if he still lived in Detroit; showing that the FBI and the MPD may very well be spying on its own citizens.
Although the Democrats and labor tops have successfully squandered tens of millions on electoral tactics as opposed to organizing rank and file members, the spirit of active resistance was seen in Wisconsin this day. There is no doubt that anyone at this demonstration could feel the depths of the real social movement that has arisen since the attacks began in February. The demonstration and street action was not an isolated group of agitators. It was neighborhood people who almost to a person knew each other and gained strength through the militancy and conviction of their neighbors-a proud day to say “I live in Riverwest”.
Christopher Fons is a Social Studies teacher in Milwaukee and a member of the Milwaukee Teacher’s Education Association (MTEA). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo by Christopher Fons.