99 And Counting On Wisconsin

Terrance Heath

As a progressive, sometimes I almost feel that I should say "Thank you" to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Not for what he’s trying to do to Wisconsin, but for energizing the progressive movement, and motivating the Democrat’s base in a way that many of us have been trying to do or waiting for Democrats to do.

Walker’s shenanigans in Wisconsin have made him a rising star in the GOP, but it’s done much more than than. It’s basically disappeared the Republican "enthusiasm gap," and sparked a movement to recall 8 Republican senators that’s piling up signatures, compared to an anemic GOP effort to recall Democratic senators,

Walker’s overreach brought over 100,000 people to rally and protest in Madison, not to mention a movement that’s spread far beyond Wisconsin, to reach all the way around the world to Cairo.

But maybe I should reconsider saying thanks to Walker, because it was really the people who initially protested in Wisconsin — the public workers whose rights were threatened, the police officers, firefighters and  private-sector workers who stood with them, and stood up to Scott Walker and his corporate backers.

The people who stood up in Wisconsin sparked a movement because they reminded us that all of our futures were at stake. Even as conservatives use economic crisis and desperation to try and pit us against each other, the people who stood up and stood together in Madison reminded us that whether middle- or working-class, we’re all in this together. Because after conservatives and corpratists come for our police officers, firefighters, teachers, nurses, etc. — our relatives, neighbors and friends — we’re next on their list

On this day, it behooves us to remember the words of Martin Niemoller.

"First they came for the communists," he wrote, "and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me."

I am a trade unionist, and yesterday in Wisconsin, they came for me. They came for you. They came for every working person in America, and their intent could not be more clear. Governor Scott Walker, along with the Koch Brothers and the right-wing radicals of the Republican Party, moved in darkness and with shameless deceit to gut the ability of dedicated laborers to bargain on an equal footing for the right to earn a living wage and to have access to decent health care.

Walker may have awakened the sleeping giant, but it was the people who stood up and stood together in Wisconsin that reminded us of potential of our collective power. They gave the lie to Margaret Thatcher’s notion that "There is no such thing as society. There are only individuals, and reminded us by example of  what I wrote earlier this week.

Individuals can spark movements, but it takes people working collectively, conscious of their common interests, to create far-reaching, long-lasting change. That kind of change happens when we are inspired to stand up not just for ourselves, but to stand up for and stand with each other.

So, thanks instead to the people who reminded us who we are and showed us the true face of America. Not the screaming, distorted face the Tea Party showed us and the media enshrined as the face of America, or the homogeneous America idealized by conservatives, As conservatives try to remake America in their own image, The thousands who protested in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and across the country, showed us and inspired us to envision fight for a better America.

Who is the face of America? Is it mean-spirited and clueless Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, with no light behind his eyes except for that shining from the torches of the Koch brothers? Is it the ranting, hate-filled, Kabuki-faced Michele Bachmann? With its over-coverage of the tea baggers lo these many months, the media have given us a portrait of America that is overwhelmingly angry, intolerant, selfish and profoundly stingy, both fiscally and emotionally. It is an America, the media tell us, echoing the distortions of Fox News and others, that wants to go back in time to an allegedly idyllic era when people were blissful because the government was “off our backs.”

This movement’s goal: The Great Rewind. The idyllic period the tea baggers and their billionaire backers long for is the Gilded Age, the 1870s to the 1890s, when there was no income tax, unionization was in its infancy, the Senate was run by and for plutocrats and government regulation of businesses was minimal. Think six-day, 12-14 hour work days, no Social Security or other retirement benefits, child labor and the repeated use of Pinkertons and other thugs to violently attack labor organizers.

So one of the most thrilling aspects of the massive protests in Madison, Wis., has been to see, visually, the repudiation of this throwback vision for America. Even more importantly, we’ve been treated to images of another face of America, one quite at odds with the gun-toting, hate-spouting “birthers” and crazies who want the government to keep its hands off “my Medicare.” Even the mainstream media, however skewed and partial their coverage has been, haven’t been able to ignore the eruption of something so consistently underrepresented on our national screens: worker solidarity, and much of it joyful.

…Because the representativeness of the Tea Party has been seriously overstated, and the megaphones of the right-wing media magnify minority views, the “common sense” we’ve been treated to is that most Americans want to rewind us back to 19th-century style laissez-faire capitalism. But the demonstrations in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the country, and the spirited images of worker solidarity they’ve produced, put the lie to the myth that Americans are selfish and reject a communitarian spirit.

I’ll say it again. The hope of the Wisconsin moment is the movement it sparked, and the core of that movement is the understanding that real change — far-reaching, long-lasting change with benefits that don’t "trickle down," but are accessible to all — happens when we stand up not just for ourselves, but for each other.

Thank you, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and everyone who’s joined this movement for reminding us that, yes, we can stand together. Yes, we can fight back. And, yes, we can build an economy — and an America — that works for, and is for all of us. 

As long as we remember that, and never let anyone tell us different, the fight that started in Wisconsin and spread throughout the country isn’t over. Not by a long shot.

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