I will probably be politically pilloried for what I am about to say, but it is something that needs to be said. We need to take a very long, very hard, and very different look at what is happening each weekday at noon in Wisconsin’s Capitol.
First I should point out that I am not entirely objective about this. I have participated in the Sing. No. I have not been there every day as have some people. No. I have not even been there even as often as I, perhaps, could or should have. To be completely honest, I have been to the sing about two dozen times since it started. I am very proud of my participation, however small, in this remarkable, ongoing event, though. There is something amazing and energizing about a group of people raising their voices in song, particularly when those voices are being raised to achieve a constructive goal. That political, emotional, and artistic attachment to the Sing makes it difficult to write this essay at all. The fact that I have not been totally immersed in it makes it possible for me to examine it from a different point of view than most. My commitment to progress and my belief in the ultimate goal of the Sing makes impossible to refrain from writing this.
The ultimate goal of the Sing, as I see it, has been two-fold. The first goal is, of course, to make certain that nobody forgets about the damage that Gov. Walker and his minions have done to our state and to keep their minds open to getting rid of him in the next election. How well they have succeeded at this is open to debate. The second goal is a different matter. The second goal is to make sure that Scotty and his cronies don’t forget that there are still a lot of angry Cheeseheads in Wisconsin. How have they done at that? Let me put it this way. If they had not been so wonderfully and brilliantly successful at achieving that goal the Capitol Police would not be doing what they are doing. Nobody would have been cited, harassed, beaten, or arrested. The Sing is an ongoing thorn in the side of the Powers That Be. One of the functions of public demonstrations is to annoy and frighten those who would oppress us. That’s why they feel the need to annoy and frighten the Singers.
It is, however, that very success that calls the success of the first goal into question. The success of any public demonstration depends, in a very large part, on public support. Inside of Madison the Sing has that. The public support within the city staggers the imagination. The farther one gets from Madison the more that diminishes. Outside of Dane County the only information people are getting about the sing is wrapped in the Great American Mythology About Protesters. It’s that police-bravely-confront-the horde-of-dirty-obnoxious-rude-noisy-hippies malarkey. Whether it is because they are not getting any information that would dispel the myth (which they probably aren’t), because if they have gotten that information and have not believed it (which is possible), or some combination of the two is not known. What is known is that the perception is helping Scott Walker to solidify his political base. Those are people we don’t actually need to worry about. Those folks will vote for Walker in the next election anyway. The people we need to worry about are the right-leaning moderates, who understand the damage that the governor is doing to the state and are willing to hold their noses and vote for a Democrat to get rid of him, and the left-leaning centrists who saw the danger from the start. Neither group wants to be seen as being allied with anarchists. These are the swing voters that we need to reach if we are to remove Walker from office. Under current circumstances we may not be able to do so. The general perception of the Sing outside of Madison may prevent that. It is possible that the Sing has run its course. It has served a great purpose. But, it may be time to move on to the other work that needs to be done to oust the Walker regime.
The counter argument to this is, “That’s all well and good. But, what about the suppression of Free Speech? We should not have to ask the government’s permission to petition the government! The actions of the Capitol Police are just, plain wrong! We can’t let Erwin and Walker win! We have to keep up the pressure.”
That’s a valid thought. It’s an important battle to be fought and, one hopes, won. One has to ask, under the circumstances (by which I mean all of the circumstances which I’ve outlined so far), if the Capitol Rotunda is the right battlefield in which to fight this. Make no mistake here. I am not in any manner supporting the court decision which allowed the Capitol Police to require permits. Nor am I in any way condoning or supporting the actions of the Capitol Police. You are quite right that we should not have to ask the government’s permission to criticize the government in public. The Capitol Police have unquestionably misinterpreted and misused the decision. But, consider this if you will. The very existence of some 300 odd citations and arrests give us more than ample opportunity to defeat this in the courts. Somewhere in those 300-plus bites at the apple are several good arguments to prove the misinterpretation and misuse. Even if the permit decision is not struck down it is not unreasonable to expect that the courts will more finitely and reasonably explain the decision in such a way as to block the Capitol Police from going any farther down their current path. We still have many thinking grown-ups sitting on the bench in Wisconsin. In this particular instance singing cannot modify police behavior. The courts can!
None of this means that letting go of the Sing will be easy. It won’t be. It can’t be. There are too many passions, emotions and issues tied up in it to make walking away easy. Besides, let’s be completely honest about this, it’s a heck of a lot of fun. It will be missed. But, right now the State of Wisconsin needs every able hand to put as much time, energy and passion into defeating Scott Walker in the next election. It’s going to take a lot of work to win over the moderates and centrists we will need to achieve that goal. We need to look carefully at the larger goals and all of the facts to decide how the cause can best be served. If we shift our efforts now from public demonstration to grass-roots organizing we can win out over the Right-Wing Agenda and the Koch Brothers’ money. We can turn Fitzwalkerstan back into Wisconsin.