Volume 24, Number 1

Bending the Arc

Fred Schepartz

Hundreds of thousands of people hit the streets, but we couldn’t stop them from passing the union-busting bill. Thousands of people worked on the recalls, but we couldn’t get Scott Walker out of office. All those people, all that effort, and we failed.

As we see the second anniversary of the Wisconsin Uprising, I cannot help but consider these words. Now to be fair, it will take years for us to truly be able to evaluate our Uprising. However, I think it is equally fair to take a cold, sober look at the events of two winters ago. To put it mildly, we got our butts kicked, and things are only getting worse.

And, sad to say, we let our movement get co-opted. I am not going to say the recalls were a bad idea, but how did the Uprising become all about the Democratic Party?

Again, to be fair, the recalls were an amazing effort. Yes, in the long run, they were not successful, but at least for a little while, we stopped the right-wing tide from washing away any more of our state. And again, we had to try, but in the process we lost something very precious. We bet all our money on the electoral system while taking direct action off the table. Granted, the battle was in the legislative arena, which of course, dictates tactics and strategy, but why did we have to limit ourselves?

What about that general strike? With our numbers as well as our passion and energy, the time was ripe. When would there be a better chance? Though, to be fair, while the general strike is a significant part of labor’s untold story, it is practically an alien concept to most Americans. However, this would have been an opportunity to change all of that.

Thinking about the Wisconsin Uprising, I look back at some of what I wrote about it. Those were such heady times, but perhaps I may have gotten a bit carried away by the moment.

But what if somehow the bill does end up passing? I still say that Walker has lost.

The activism that Walker sparked is not going away. Eight Republican senators can be recalled right now. Organizing efforts are already under way. Walker could lose the senate by the end of this year.

Walker is eligible to be recalled next January. It will be an uphill effort, but there is so much anger at Walker that recall is certainly realistic. Imagine if the recall election coincided with the presidential election. Imagine if Russ Feingold ran against Walker (that’s my fantasy). It would be an absolute slaughter. As one friend of mine said, Walker may have single-handedly guaranteed that President Obama will be reelected, though I wish Obama would be a little more out front on this issue.

Even if the recall effort fails, Walker is damaged beyond repair, and his getting punked by Ian Murphy is just the frosting on the cake. Certainly, Walker cannot be reelected at this point, unless the Koch Brothers donate a billion dollars to his campaign. More importantly, I have to think that nationally, behind closed doors, Walker must be a pariah to national Republican leadership.

He overreached, and they know it. He provoked mass protests, the likes of which we have not seen in decades, if ever. We may even see general strikes. You know what really, really freaks out Republicans? General strikes. Despite all the attention Walker is getting from Fox and all the love he’s getting from the hard, hard right and various front groups like Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, I have to think that Republican leadership is none too pleased with Walker.

This is part of an essay I wrote titled, “Gov. Scott Walker Has Already Lost.” I cringe sometimes when I think of these words, which now strike me as just a bit naïve. I guess I am just too much of an optimist. Sometimes I think I actually believe in the Easter Bunny. I know many is the time where I try a bit too hard to put a positive spin on things.

And yet, maybe we need somebody to put a positive spin on things. Within reason, at least. But we need to be positive. We need to maintain a sense of hope. We simply cannot give up and give in to cynicism.

There are many things to consider when evaluating the Wisconsin Uprising.

First, it is not fair to look at it only in terms of a venture that failed rather than succeeding. The question is not black and white, and the reality is far more complex than that. The reality is that the battle was lost in 2010 when too many people stayed away from the polls, thus allowing a complete Republican takeover of the state. As far as the overall war, who know how long it will last or when it will end. Or how it will end.

We could have put a million people on the streets every single day, and Act 10 still would have been rammed through (illegally). Yet I fully believe that what we did was more than merely fight the good fight because somebody had to fight the good fight. We slowed down the process. We forced them into panicking and violating our Open Meeting laws to pass the bill illegally. We forced them to resort to utilizing a corrupt Wisconsin Supreme Court to put the law into effect.

Most importantly, we forced them to do what they wanted to do under the harsh light of public scrutiny, with the eyes of the entire world watching.

The Wisconsin Uprising was the longest continual labor protest in American history.

In the process, we inspired the entire world. 2011 was the Year of Uprising. It started in Tunisia and Egypt. And Madison, Wisconsin. I firmly believe that we inspired the Occupy Movement. The uprising of the 99 percent had its genesis when hundreds of University of Wisconsin teaching assistants and students descended upon the Capitol to deliver “I Heart UW” valentines to a governor with no heart.

It warmed my heart when I heard audio of protesters in Greece evoking Madison when they hit the street in response to the instituting of harsh austerity measures. After all, it is a fair question in Athens, and it is a fair question in Madison: why do we, the 99 percent, have to pay for the excesses of the one percent? This is a question more frequently asked now than before the Wisconsin Uprising.

A show of hands: how many of you know who the Koch Brothers are? How many of you know what the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is? How many of you can name more than 10 members of your state legislature?

I have no idea what the answer is to those questions, but I would be willing to bet the farm I do not own that the number is a hell of a lot larger than before the Wisconsin Uprising. We have seen the exercise of raw, ruthless power. We have seen what a government can do to us. And we now profoundly understand the importance of paying attention and being engaged in the process of government.

I remember sitting in the Assembly gallery the day after the story broke about Scott Walker being punked by Ian Murphy and watching with amazement as then Assembly Majority Leader Robin Vos claimed that he didn’t even know who David Koch was. Wow! And this from a guy who regularly attends ALEC junkets, which, of course, are funded largely by the Koch Brothers.

Thanks to the work of people like Lisa Graves of the Center for Media and Democracy (alecexposed.org/wiki/ALEC_Exposed) and U. S. Rep. Marc Pocan, we now know so much more about ALEC and the Koch Brothers than before, but it must be understood that their hard work would not reach such a receptive audience if people did not appreciate the significant yet secretive role that billionaires like the Koch Brothers and Wisconsin’s own Bradley family play because they choose to meddle in our lives.

And here’s something else to consider. Remember how shocked Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan were in the wake of a pretty humiliating defeat at the hands of a president they expected to beat handily?

Here in Wisconsin, Republicans were getting pretty cocky about their prospects for victory last November. Hell, they predicted that taking Wisconsin would be a key path in the road of victory for Romney. In the wake of Walker’s victory during the recall election, they figured Wisconsin was now solidly red.

It wasn’t. And they can only blame themselves.

Republicans may have won nearly every recall election, but the infrastructure that was put in place was very much a key to Barack Obama winning reelection. Granted, I was not as excited about the President’s reelection as his election four years ago—not going backward is not progress. However, a win is a win, and I’ll be more than happy to take it.

Besides, we got Tammy Baldwin elected to the U. S. Senate. Again, the recalls played a concrete role here, but also, in general, the Wisconsin Uprising played a role because if we learned nothing, we learned that our actions matter and our inactions matter as well.

And yet another thing I might argue is that while Obama appeared to ignore the Wisconsin Uprising and even the recalls, I have to believe he was paying attention. He certainly paid attention to Occupy, even adopting the lexicon of the 99 percent.

I am cautiously optimistic that we are seeing Obama take slightly more progressive stances now that he no longer has to worry about being reelected. And to the extent that he moves away from the center, I have to believe that our actions two years ago have something to do with that. I think of the apocryphal story involving FDR and his meetings with some progressive leader. FDR is sympathetic to the person’s cause and essentially agrees with the leader, but is cautious about taking action, urging the leader to “make me do it.”

Hundreds of thousands of people hit the streets two years ago. Two years later, ripples are still felt. This is how we make Barack Obama do it.

The ripple effect is certainly in play here in Wisconsin. Walker and other state Republican leaders have talked of being more conciliatory though in reality it’s more about being sneakier, but they are open about not wanting another Uprising.

And I cannot help but wonder if that is why right to work legislation has not been introduced here in Wisconsin though there is a work-sharing bill going through the legislature that would start the process of eroding private sector labor rights.

Interestingly, there seem to be fissures forming within the Republican Senate caucus. Last session, only one Republican broke ranks. Now, three seem willing to put the reins on at least part of Walker’s agenda, specifically on school choice, which Walker wants to institute statewide.

Sens. Mike Ellis and Luther Olsen have spoken in favor of holding local referendums so voters can decide for themselves if school choice is right for their communities.

(It should be noted that after I wrote this, Ellis and Olsen voted in favor of a mining deregulation bill that was written by Gogebic Taconite, just so the company could create the largest open pit mine in the country, upstream from tribal land. In fact, Olsen’s district either includes or is directly adjacent to the Baraboo Bluffs, which contain significant iron ore deposits. The bill passed by one vote.)

If Ellis and Olsen join Sen. Dale Schultz the three could form a powerful swing bloc in the senate that could have a great deal to say about what happens over the next two years. Granted, that may not sound like much, but I think back to last session and how Republicans would not even engage in debate with Democrats over matters of tremendous importance. The silence got so deafening and absurd that Democratic Rep. Terese Berceau, on the Assembly floor, was moved to say the following:

“It’s a cult over there. There was some willingness to talk about issues, but that’s gone now. It’s this glazed eye look. It’s almost like Night of the Living Dead or zombies or something.”

Last session, Ellis and Olsen marched in lockstep behind Walker. Now they show less willingness to do so.

Can this shift be attributed to the Wisconsin Uprising?

I have a theory that in the short term, the Uprising had a polarizing affect on those who were the target of the protests. Instead of listening to what the people were saying, they circled the wagons and proceeded full speed ahead with little regard of what was pulverized in their wake.

However, in the long term, maybe the Uprising may have a moderating affect on Republicans who actually possess moderate tendencies. Olsen faced recall in 2011 and prevailed, but not by a wide margin. He might have lost if his opponent, Rep. Fred Clark, had not made a totally boneheaded move by saying horrible things about a woman who hung up on him while her answering machine was recording him.

There is speculation that Ellis may face a primary challenge. If that’s the case, he’ll need Democratic voters to cross over and support him in the primary.

Both Ellis and Olsen have to understand that their political future depends on appealing to the middle, not the hardcore rightwing base.

That said, I also would like to think that if these men possess a heart, they have to think back to the Wisconsin Uprising and not see a bunch of criminals. They have to not see a bunch of thugs paid for by the Teamsters. They have to not see a bunch of malcontents.

I really, really would like to think that maybe, just maybe they saw people. Real people with real problems. Neighbors. Daughters and sons. Mothers and fathers. Real people.

Real people who cared a great deal about what was not only happening to them, but what was happening to the entire state.

Yes, I can understand reacting to these people with fear and loathing, but I can understand gaining some perspective and developing an ability to see who these people were and why they were up at the Capitol every day for weeks at a time. It has to do something with empathy, which is something most humans possess.

Granted, this is nothing but conjecture. I have no way of knowing what people like Mike Ellis and Luther Olsen are thinking. I cannot know what is in their hearts. All I can do is babble and babble about what kind of role the Wisconsin Uprising may have played and may play in the future because there is one thing I know for sure. The Wisconsin Uprising will play a role in our lives for a long time. We may not know what that role is. We may not be able to quantify it or fully understand it, but it is there. It is a factor.

Again, it will likely take several years before we can fully evaluate the Wisconsin Uprising. For right now I want to go back to my previously referenced essay:

This brings me to perhaps a more long-term, more ephemeral point. Looking at the arc of history, I see where Walker has truly lost. For tens or even hundreds of thousands of people, this is a defining, coming of age moment. People have been politicized. People have been radicalized. The uprising in some way, shape or form, will turn into some kind of movement that possibly could transform America into the kind of place we believe it is supposed to be. And all these people, who knows what they will be able to accomplish?

Again, is this overly optimistic? Maybe. Hopelessly naïve? Damn, I hope not.

The night of Walker’s recall election, I talked about the arc of history. I brought this up to comfort many who were despondent over the glum results that night. My comments were a rather clumsy paraphrasing of the famous Martin Luther King, Jr. quote from a speech he gave in Montgomery, Alabama in 1965:

"How long? Not long. Because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

I recently heard audio from that speech and heard that quote. A chill and a jolt ran up and down my spine. Words cannot describe how inspired I felt hearing those words.

The arc of history bends toward justice. We evolve. We become better people. We become better at being better to our fellow citizens, our fellow humans.

The arc of history bends toward justice because it has to do so. Because it must, it absolutely must.