A spirit of rebellion in Wisconsin

March 15, 2011

Bill Linville, a teacher in New York City and former University of Wisconsin student, traveled to Wisconsin to add his voice to the thousands in support of union rights.

AFTER FOLLOWING the events in Madison for several weeks, hearing report backs from fellow New York City teachers who ventured there, reading news of the struggle and vigilantly following my Madison friends' Facebook posts, I felt compelled to fly back to my alma mater in early March.

I attended a demonstration on Saturday, March 5, at the Capitol. According to Madison police estimates, the protest numbered between 40,000 and 50,000. These are modest figures compared with the previous Saturday's demonstration, and those of the following Saturday, March 12, as apparently major unions did not get on board with this demonstration until the last minute.

When I heard fellow New York teachers who visited Madison during winter break return to exclaim that Madison was like nothing they had ever experienced--that they had learned more from a few days of struggle than years of inadequate schooling and were generally imbued with revolutionary fervor--I was similarly excited. But a small part of me wondered if perhaps these folks were not engaging in a wee bit of hyperbole.

A short time in Madison helped me realize that their exclamations were no exaggeration. I've never been to a demonstration that came close to the level of confidence and solidarity--and a certain feeling that I couldn't figure out. Perhaps it's the contagious spirit of working-class rebellion.

To start with, seemingly every store on State Street leading up to the Capitol displayed messages against Walker or in support of the workers. My personal favorite was the store window in which mannequins were made to hold placards. Everyone in Madison seemed a little extra friendly and political conversations abounded.

WHEN I got near the Capitol, I found out that there were two separate rallies called, one for Noon and one for 2 p.m., but I got the sense that many people were not responding to a particular call. A constant stream of people marched around the Capitol Square.

At the King Street entrance to the Capitol, speeches were ongoing, and filmmaker Michael Moore spoke there. On the State Street side, speeches and music were also ongoing with a separate crowd gathered there. All the time, the constant flow of traffic encircled the Capitol like an endless working-class parade.

Elsewhere, people stood in line to enter the Capitol--as per court order, only a limited number were allowed in at a time, and police had set up airport-style security in a building that had, up until then, always been completely open to the public.

Gov. Scott Walker recently told a prank caller who he thought was right-wing billionaire David Koch, "I've said, hey, ya know, we can handle this, people can protest, this is Madison, ya know, full of '60s liberals. Let 'em protest."

The demonstration itself decisively refuted his claim that Madison is the exception to the silent majority of Wisconsinites in support of his attacks.

As I helped to unload signs from a parking lot near the capitol, it was clear that the parking lot was primarily devoted to demonstrators and union members from all corners of the state. I ran into union members who had driven from Wausau. Contingents on the march included construction workers (hard hats included) chanting "Kill the bill," "Cops for Labor," Teamsters, a group of people marching behind a "People of Color" banner, teachers, a bagpipes contingent and more.

I hastily made a sign which read, "NYC Teacher and UW Alum Stands with Wisconsin Workers." As I held the sign, I received a near-constant barrage of thumbs-ups and thank yous. I explained to people I spoke with that their fight was all of ours.

People in Wisconsin understand that and seem to welcome all the support they get from all corners of the country. For a while, I stood next to a teacher from Los Angeles who held a similar sign. I got into conversations with teachers from around the state. Madison teachers are fundraising with T-shirt sales to collect money for unpaid days resulting from their sick-outs.

Most Wisconsin teachers expressed an agreement with the need for labor to up the ante and refuse to accept concessions. A couple of folks even expressed to me that what is needed is a general strike. I gave away anti-school privatization pins made by the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM), a New York City-based group that I am a part of.

MY EXPERIENCE at the demonstration also confirmed what must be giving Glenn Beck nightmares: More and more workers and ordinary Americans are expressing interest in socialism and socialist politics. But Glenn Beck can never understand that this attraction has nothing to do with secret support from the Obama administration or liberal groups or some kind of conspiratorial organizing of socialists.

Instead, the things that are attracting workers to be open to socialist politics are not hard to decipher. The federal government has opened the vaults for an endless flow of trillions of dollars of money and credits to banks and corporations, yet the federal government claims it has no money.

Two-thirds of Wisconsin's corporations pay no taxes, yet workers are asked to sacrifice when there is nothing left for them to. Recent polls back this up. A January poll shows that 36 percent of Americans hold a favorable opinion of socialism.

I spent time during the demonstration at a table of the Madison branch of the International Socialist Organization, helping to hand out hundreds of copies of a recent article by Lee Sustar urging workers to build collective actions to put the screws on Walker and distributing copies of the most recent Socialist Worker.

The majority of people I spoke to at this table were from rural Wisconsin--outside of Madison and Milwaukee. Many readily expressed agreement with socialism, or at least a willingness to hear more or engage in lengthy dialogue with socialists.

Having grown up in a small town in northern Wisconsin, this came as quite a shock to me. Rural Wisconsin is not exactly known as a petri dish for radical left-wing politics. My high school social studies teacher used to make the joke that he was the only card-carrying Democrat in all of Sawyer County.

So when I spoke to an older man from Eau Claire, an hour and a half away from the town where I grew up, who casually told me he'd heard of us, he supported socialism and that some kind of a new party was needed, my jaw nearly dropped to the frozen capitol tundra.

I met people from Chetek, Oshkosh, Beloit, Waupun and elsewhere who expressed similar interest. Socialist Worker flew out of our hands like hotcakes, as did our signs, which read "An Injury to One is an Injury to All." To paraphrase Bob Dylan, something is happening here, and Glenn Beck and Scott Walker have no clue what it is.

Returning home after my whirlwind tour of Madison, I am inspired to bring a little bit of the Wisconsin spirit back to New York City. Scott Walker expressed hope that this would be his "PATCO moment." He was referencing Reagan's firing of air traffic controllers, which served to tip the scales decisively in favor of a brutal 30-year one-sided class war. Let's make Walker's "moment" result in the scales decisively tipped in the other direction, not just in Wisconsin, but all across the country.

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