Saturday, March 19, 2011


I’ve been participating in social justice protests for several decades, but I’ve never experienced anything like the spirit of the Wisconsin workers’ upsurge.

The Wisconsin Spirit isn’t just the protest movement. The Wisconsin Spirit is an attitude, a set of values, a feeling of community.

First, ninety-eight percent of the placards and signs have been handmade. This is extraordinary. Usually in social justice and union protests a small percentage of signs are handmade, but most placards are professionally printed by the organizing groups.

At the Saturday, March 12 protest of 150,000 people, there were some mass produced signs made by unions. State employees who are members of AFSCME, for example, carried wonderful signs reading “This is about freedom.”

But tens of thousands of Wisconsinites took the time – some clearly took hours – to personalize a message to Governor Walker and the world by making their own signs. Some signs were emotional, some were humorous, some were angry, some told a personal story. All of them were creative and poignant.

The personalized signs made it clear to the world that this wasn’t a sustained series of protests by organizations. No, this was a peoples’ movement. This was a mass movement of ordinary people.

Second, I’ve never been at a social justice protest where people chant “thank you” to speakers and supporters. This has been a regular chant in the Wisconsin protests. After someone would speak in the rotunda to the 1,000+ who occupied the capitol building for two weeks, the chant would rise up. When a group of unionists marched together through the rotunda, the chant would go up. Whenever union fire fighters or union police officers marched together, the chant started. At all the mass rallies on the capitol steps, tens of thousands chanted “thank you!” to each speaker.

It’s a shame that every teacher in America – the vilified, denigrated teachers who have suffered such insults from conservative politicians and media pundits – couldn’t have experienced being in the capitol building when over a thousand people chanted at the top of their lungs, “Thank you teachers!”

The “thank you” chant helped create and deepen the sense of community, of camaraderie, of solidarity that permeated the entire workers’ upsurge. Particularly during the capitol occupation, when you participated in the chants and drumming and listened to people testify; when you walked around and looked at the hundreds, then thousands, of signs on the walls; when you started up conversations with strangers; when you walked around and saw the level of organization in what became a peoples’ cathedral; when you just gazed at hundreds of protesters and saw the intense determination in their eyes and the smiles on their faces – it built a sense of community. It was magical.

For so very many of us, when we left the occupied capitol building, it was like a magnet, drawing us back. The number of people participating, and the sustained daily protests, were inspiring. But the occupation of the capitol, and the contagious spirit of the Wisconsin people, was more than that – it was extraordinary. It was electrifying.

It was a transcendent communal experience.

And it was that mindset that Governor Walker was trying to kill when he illegally locked the people out of the capitol building on February 28th.

Finally, part of the driving force of the anger in Wisconsin was a sense of betrayal of basic values. It seems to me from talking to many Wisconsinites that they have a deep sense of pride that Wisconsin is a state where people care about one another; where people take care of one another. There’s an immense pride in their health care system, BadgerCare. There’s an immense pride that the Green Bay Packers, alone among National Football League teams, are owned, since 1923, by the people. The Packers’ website reports that 4.7 million shares are owned by 112,000 people. The team is run as a nonprofit corporation. No single stock owner can own more than 200,000 shares, which ensures that no individual has undue influence over the voting process.

And I was told by many proud Wisconsites that volunteers work concessions at Packers’ games, with sixty percent of the proceeds going to local charities. This, too, many people told me, expressed the Wisconsin spirit.

In the 24/7 hearings held by Democrats during the two-week capitol occupation, many hundreds of ordinary people testified against the bill, telling their personal stories. Repeatedly people would say that they moved to Wisconsin or else decided to stay in Wisconsin because of the people – that the core Wisconsin value is that people care for one another. And that Governor Walker and his union-busting bill with its deep cuts in social services were viciously violating that spirit, that core value.

So it’s not just that we need to help expand the protests inspired by the Wisconsin upsurge.

We also need to spread these core values, this transcendent community, this Wisconsin spirit.

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