Tens of thousands of regular folks have been clogging the Wisconsin statehouse and the plazas around it for days. The duration and force of the protests have been surprising to many Americans, who are accustomed to our rallying culture resembling outdoor concerts on the Washington Mall. The scene out of Wisconsin is more spontaneous, less produced, more authentic, and therefore, more captivating. It less resembles Glenn Beck’s revival or Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity and looks akin to another set of images we’ve seen recently — those out of the Middle East.
Both sides have seized that comparison. Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, deriding the protests in Wisconsin, said it was “like Cairo had moved to Madison.” Meanwhile, progressive organizations like USAction, called upon members to support the Wisconsin workers by asking in an action email: “Want to stand in solidarity with this American Tahrir Square?”
Whether you accept the parallel between Madison and Tahrir Square, you can’t deny that an eruption of political energy has been triggered by Gov. Scott Walker’s efforts to strip unionized employees of their most important leverage: collective bargaining. The fight is lasting more than an afternoon — and beyond a single news cycle. The decision of the Democratic state senators to leave the state and deny quorum for a vote has prolonged the fight. Walker called the move a “stunt,” but others see it as a rallying point. The online activist group CREDO Action has encouraged over 100,000 members to send thank you notes to those 14 Senators for their “courageous stand.” DailyKos readers have donated over $100,000 to the Wisconsin State Senate Democratic Committee.
Tens of thousands of regular Americans in the streets of Madison have been inspirational. As they demonstrate in their capital, they demonstrate to all of us what a real American protest movement looks like: peaceful, passionate and persistent.
In New York on Friday, over 100 people came out to show their support for Wisconsin workers. This “Cheesehead Rally” showed the solidarity of New Yorkers — and did, in fact, feature over 20 large, triangular, bright cheesehead hats. I am part of the group that organized that action and saw the remarkable response on short notice to a 9am Friday event. The Jobs Party — the rally’s sponsor — is organizing a second gathering at 5pm Tuesday afternoon outside of Fox News, during the program of notoriously anti-worker Glenn Beck.
Rallies are taking place across the country this week, and many Americans are wearing red to support the workers. Red is one of Wisconsin’s colors, though we chose the green-and-gold of the championship Packers, who have come out in favor of the protests.
Why now? Of all the fights, why has the plight of organized labor in Wisconsin sparked such a passionate response?
In part, we are inspired by the images out of Tunisia, Egypt and across the Middle East. People halfway around the world are risking far more in a more dangerous setting to be active citizens. It makes us realize there’s more we can do to be citizens at home.
Furthermore, many Americans are realizing that our way of life is under attack. The right wing has moved to defund Planned Parenthood, a resource that has supported countless women, so rallies are fighting back to defend women’s health. The conservatives are pushing brutal budgets that slash essential government programs; in response, protest actions are pointing out how we can make better choices with our public investment. Locally, the threat against teachers and other essential workers is turning people out to defend our jobs and our city.
This isn’t going away. The right wing has picked this fight. The Koch brothers, among others, are funding these battles and Wisconsin is just a dress rehearsal for more crusades against working Americans in Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania.
So the response isn’t just about Wisconsin. People around the country are standing up. Maybe we’re quicker to join because we’ve so recently seen what regular people, a world away, can do when they join together. But we’re also standing up now because we know it’s not just Wisconsin and it’s not just workers. Next, it will be us – our state, our way of life – and don’t want to find ourselves standing alone.
Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."