I am a 42-year-old husband, father of three, and police officer. For most of my adult life, I have been focused on my life's basic tasks: raising a family and protecting and serving my community. While I considered myself well-read and socially aware, the truth is I was politically disengaged, and sat on the sidelines while our nation crumbled. Then in February of 2011, the entire paradigm of my life changed, when Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker announced legislation that destroyed five decades of labor peace and workers' rights.
Governor Walker's union-busting legislation affected thousands of public employees, but it also did something curious: It exempted police and fire unions from the provisions of the bill. Perhaps this was an attempt to divide the working people of Wisconsin. Perhaps it was a realization that this legislation would cause significant civil unrest and the governor wanted us available and willing to clean up his mess. Whatever the case, our exemption left us with two choices: sit on the sidelines while our state was torn apart, or speak out against what was happening.
Wisconsin's police and fire unions did not sit on the sidelines. We spoke out loudly and publicly against this terrible legislation, marching through snow and sleeping on marble in solidarity with the people of Wisconsin. From these events, the Cops for Labor movement was born.
We joined a Wisconsin uprising that was remarkable in every sense of the word. Some 150,000 Wisconsinites converged on the Capitol in Madison. The protests were so remarkable in part because the people were so…ordinary. They were our neighbors, our friends, our family. They were Wisconsinites trying to preserve a way of life and sense of fairness which we had enjoyed for four decades in this state. Nurses, teachers, firefighters, police officers, steel workers, electricians, correctional officers, snow plow drivers, students, and social workers—all in one place, making their collective voice heard.
Scott Walker’s union-busting bill was signed into law on March 11, 2011. After the protests ended, Wisconsinites left the streets of Madison to return to the streets of their hometowns, where they collected enough signatures to force what was only the third gubernatorial recall election in United States history.
I wish I could say that the Wisconsin uprising yielded immediate, tangible and linear results. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Scott Walker spent a record sum of mostly out-of-state money to survive the recall election, and the results of his policies are now becoming apparent. Wisconsin is, by all objective measure, in real trouble. With a GOP-controlled executive and legislature, Wisconsin has become a combination of playground and laboratory for powerful right wing corporate think tanks peddling extreme and destructive legislation.
As a result of a crumbling middle class, Wisconsin is hemorrhaging jobs, ranking number 42 in the nation in job creation. People are fleeing the state in droves, resulting in Wisconsin’s rank in the top 10 states in emigration.
Walker has kicked thousands of poor children off of Medicaid, and has recently refused billions of dollars of federal money that would have extended health insurance to approximately 200,000 Wisconsinites. This state has seen the dismantling of environmental regulations, with foreign mining companies writing laws to rig the permit process for strip mines. To make matters worse, Wisconsin has seen gerrymandering that would make old time Chicago politicians blush, almost guaranteeing years of corporate domination of our political process.
Without question, the most offensive portion of the right wing agenda that has covered Wisconsin like a stifling burlap sack is the assault on public education. Our teachers have been thoroughly demonized and disparaged in an attempt to silence their collective voice. Wisconsin has extracted the largest educational cuts in the nation, and our schools are being deliberately starved to their breaking points. Class sizes are bursting, with one district in the southeast portion of the state forced to cram 38 children in each kindergarten class.
That isn’t educating; it’s warehousing. Wisconsin has lost teachers in droves, and educator morale is at an all-time low. While the governor is defunding public schools, money is being quietly diverted to private, underperforming charter schools and voucher programs, in all of their profit-potential glory. The Walker administration and GOP legislature are strangling the state’s public universities and trade colleges, and are now considering allowing people to buy degrees without having stepped foot in a classroom. The irony of this, from a governor who dropped out of college amid the cloud of scandal, is not lost on many of us.
Yet, as we approach the second anniversary of the Wisconsin uprising, it is impossible not to acknowledge that powerful, wonderful things are happening in this state. The uprising created a movement of new activists, many of whom—like me—had never protested anything in their lives. This movement is passionate, it is committed, and it is becoming more organized with each passing day. Wisconsin has also seen an explosion of phenomenal citizen journalism that has emerged to combat a mainstream media that is passive and dysfunctional.
Another remarkable gift to come from the Wisconsin protests is Amie Williams’ award-winning documentary film, We are Wisconsin. This film truly captures the essence of civic involvement and civic duty in our nation. It beautifully conveys the emotion and passion of the Wisconsin protests, but it also provides a testament to the power of the collective action of average citizens who are willing to do extraordinary things. At a time in our nation when money and special interests dominate our political process, this film provides a glimpse of another possible reality.
March 11, 2013 has been designated a national day of recommitment to the ideals of the Wisconsin uprising. On that date, people all over the world will gather to screen We are Wisconsin for free in their schools, libraries, union halls, theaters, and homes. Following a special Madison, Wisconsin screening, a nationally webcast town hall-style panel of activists and labor leaders will reflect on the Wisconsin uprising and the future of the Progressive movement going forward. It is my hope that our story starts a conversation for lasting change so that we may create a nation that works better for more of its citizens.
For more information on screenings in your area, or how to host your own screening, please visit www.wearewisconsinthefilm.com. On Twitter, @wearewithefilm and #31113