[note: I originally wrote this a few weeks back for a website that my cousin has started up. It never ended up there and I forgot about it for a while. I wanted it to go somewhere, so I'm putting it here. I also realize now that it seems a bit unfinished, but I think it's better to leave it as it was in the moment.]
I was born in Wisconsin. It’s been a long time since I lived there, but I have deep roots as almost my entire family is still there or nearby, and I return as often as I can. In some ways, it is more “home” to me than my actual home in Boston. This is a difficult feeling to describe, but when I return to visit, there is a certain sense of peace that is often lacking otherwise.
As much as possible, I try to keep up with the events going on in Wisconsin. This is sometimes not as easy and it seems, and generally ends up being related mostly to sports. Nonetheless, even here in Boston, it was notable amongst quite a few of my friends on November 2, 2010 when Russ Feingold of all people lost his U.S. Senate seat to an upstart Tea Partier named Ron Johnson. We all were able to sense that something was happening in America, and that it was very wrong. Little did we know just how bad it was going to be, but know we would just a few months later.
The news of Scott Walker’s “Budget Repair” Bill spread quickly. It was clear, even immediately, that the bill was hardly that, but instead an obvious attempt to appropriate power and distribute it to the extreme wing of the Republican Party and to the corporate interests that fuel it. Collective bargaining was the initial target that brought Wisconsin’s workers to Capitol Square, but as we have learned since, that was only the beginning. The bill, and the eventual budget that Walker wishes to enact this spring, would bring about sweeping changes and cuts to a wide swath of state agencies and institutions that promise a scary conclusion if enacted. Wisconsin would be left with a massively decimated educational system, from elementary schools all the way up to one of the nation’s greatest research universities in UW-Madison. Services that assist the poor, elderly, or otherwise disadvantaged would be decimated, leaving hundreds of thousands with nowhere to turn. Environmental services would lose funding, leaving the door open for corporate interests who misguidedly believe that environmental regulation serves only as a speed bump to the filling of their coffers to pollute as they wish. State assets could be sold off without even a bidding process to whatever of Scott Walker or the Fitzgerald brothers’ friends benefit the most from such graft. Over time, these sweeping changes would end up driving workers out of the state, creating a woefully undereducated generation unable to fend for themselves in the modern world, and driving those smart enough to realize what is going on to leave the state for greener economic and intellectual pastures.
All of this is indeed very bad. It is, in fact, unprecedented in its awfulness. But the very worst is the manner in which the Republicans in Wisconsin’s seats of executive and legislative authority have taken on their task. Not content to simply use their majority in both legislative houses to pass bills, the Republicans under Scott Fitzgerald’s lead have gone a step further and spit in the face of the laws and Constitution of Wisconsin and the rules of their own assemblies. The actions of March 9 and 10, including the Committee vote with almost no public notice to supposedly separate the fiscal items from the bill, the Senate vote immediately following, and the rushed 10-second vote the next day in the Assembly, show not only a complete disregard for parliamentary procedure and the laws of Wisconsin, but also for their fellow legislators and most importantly, each and every Wisconsinite from Superior to Kenosha.
For weeks, as I watched from afar as untold thousands of Wisconsinites marched on the Capitol, standing up for the Wisconsin way of life, I longed to be alongside them all in Madison. I knew from the moment I read the initial reports in February that what was and is still happening portends the utmost importance, not only in Wisconsin, but for all of America. It is not insignificant that this battle is occurring in Wisconsin, a state long at the forefront of labor issues, rife with its own history of bloody battles and political struggles that set the tone for workers across the country. My own family has a deep connection with these struggles. My grandfather and great-grandfather were union men in Beaver Dam and were extremely active members. That same grandfather was the president of the Dodge County Central Labor Council, and my grandmother the president of the Auxiliary. Shortly after the Madison protests began, my uncle sent to my cousin and me a picture of my grandfather from the early 60s standing alongside Senator Nelson and Congressman Kastenmeier, reminding us of his passionate work, outside of his grueling factory job and raising of nine children, he did to help improve the lives and working conditions of others.
With each day that passed, I yearned more and more to join in the cause. I spent a great deal of time keeping track of each day’s events, but one learns only so much from reading text on computer screens and seeing the occasional photograph. March 9 was the final straw, the final outrage that would send me that weekend on a plane to Milwaukee and a short drive to the Capitol. As it turned out, that Saturday might have been the most powerful to date, with some reports suggesting that nearly 200,000 people showed up that day, and the 14 Democratic Party senators returning to address the crowds. I was blown away by the immenseness of it all, and found myself overwhelmed by emotion several times during the day. I met many people that day, from literally all walks of life, each one driven by the idea that we really are all alike and we all deserve the same respect.
The trip rejuvenated me, as I’m sure the past month has rekindled the drive of many people not just in Wisconsin, but in her neighbors embattled with similar issues, and throughout our Union. Each day, each week has brought with it new challenges, new battles that we must face in defense of our rights and our democracy, but it is a fight we all must take up, because democracy isn’t just a state of being, it doesn’t just exist every day, it is something that must be fought for each and every day, lest it die while we’re not looking.