I haven’t offered an update on the Solidarity Sing Along in a while, but it is still going strong. The sing along is a noon-hour singing protest that has occurred at the Wisconsin State Capitol every weekday, including holidays, since March 11, 2011. It began when the larger protests against Governor Scott Walker’s union-busting law began to wane.
For nearly four years now, between 20 and 100 (and at times, hundreds) of citizens have gathered in the rotunda or on the Capitol lawn on their lunch hours to sing for an hour in support of labor rights, the environment, women’s health issues, education, and the first amendment.
Resistance to the Walker brand of neo-fascism has also included the displaying of banners, writing of messages on the Capitol sidewalk with sidewalk chalk, and the occasional yelling of “Walker Sucks!”
The persistent public shaming of Mr. Walker and his Republican co-conspirators in the state legislature by concerned citizens did not sit well with the governor, who ousted the well-regarded Chief of the Capitol Police a couple years ago and replaced him with one of Walker’s bodyguards from the State Patrol with a mandate to crack down on the singers. No, I am not making that up.
On the eve of the 2012 anniversary of the 9/11 World Trade Center disaster, the unqualified and uncharismatic new chief, David Erwin, did a stiff interview with a local right-wing propaganda site claiming that the Capitol singers and others were “terrorizing” schoolchildren, grandmothers, and lawmakers with sensitive dispositions. After that ill-chosen phrasing was picked up and highlighted by legitimate media, Erwin ordered his officers (themselves having had their own union busted by Walker) to issue citations to people they could identify, and that’s what they did. First, they issued them by mail or in person at people’s homes, then occasionally in person right after the noon Sing Along.
Eventually, after it was clear that the gently-delivered tickets were failing to motivate people to stop gathering and singing, Erwin ordered his officers to arrest people in the Capitol and issue them citations for failing to disperse from an unlawful assembly. They arrested hundreds of people in the rotunda over the course of a few months in the summer of 2013.
You can probably guess what happened. The gatherings became larger and larger, attracting more local citizens who saw the arrests of their neighbors as unnecessary bullying. The arrests continued. For the most part the singers simply kept singing as they were being cuffed. A few people were charged with resisting for sitting down when confronted by police, but none of the arrestees ever became violent. (I can say that with confidence since I was there most days and there are literally hundreds of photos and videos from each day of arrests. The only violence that occurred was perpetrated by police when they arrested two young, black activists who were there to observe and sing, like everyone else. The arrests of singers were ended after video surfaced showing that the police lied about the circumstances surrounding the arrests of the two men and bogus criminal charges against one of them were dropped.)
Since then, the Sing Along legend has grown as social activists, labor union members, and musical artists from around the world have sent word of their support, or even journeyed to Madison to join the singers, but the legal mess created by Walker and Erwin has gotten even messier. For a number of reasons, including common sense, the local district attorney refused to prosecute the tickets, so the state Attorney General, Republican J.B. Van Hollen, offered to step in and have the state do the dirty work. Surely the singers would tremble at the awesome power of the Van Hollen machine, right?
Wrong. The singers fought back. Most pled not guilty and demanded jury trials. With assistance from the Madison chapter of the National Lawyers Guild and others, the singers who stood their ground (through their attorneys or sometimes representing themselves) have convinced the courts to dismiss the citations before even going to trial. It’s been a long, ongoing legal battle, but the courts have held consistently that the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda is a traditional public forum and that the people who have assembled there to sing and protest have done so lawfully.
One thing about petty dictators is that they don’t give up, though, and Walker, Erwin, and Van Hollen haven’t given up on their silly campaign against sidewalk chalk, satin banners, and folk music sung by peaceful protesters. For the rest of the story, jump over that crumpled orange banner and read the latest press release from the Madison chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.
See images here http://www.jsonline.com/multimedia/photos/217028621.html
See the latest press release from the Madison chapter of the National Lawyers Guild here http://www.thewheelerreport.com/wheeler_docs/files/1024madisonnlg.pdf