Singers continue Wisconsin protest
MADISON, Wis. — Every weekday as the clock strikes noon, dozens of demonstrators pass out songbooks inside the Wisconsin Capitol. Office workers who know what's coming scramble to close their doors, and several police officers take up watch from a distance.
Then the group begins to sing, the voices echoing throughout the cavernous rotunda. The first song might include the lyrics, "Hit the road, Scott, and don't you come back no more." The next tune could say, "We'll keep singing `til justice is done. We're not going away, oh Scotty."
Most of the protesters who hounded Gov. Scott Walker for his collective-bargaining law got on with their lives long ago. But one group still gathers every day to needle the state's leading Republican — a tactic they promise to continue even as supporters suggest there are more effective ways to influence politics.
"We're not just protesting," said Brandon Barwick, a 28-year-old student and musician who is the unofficial leader of the sing-along. "We're advocating for a way of governing, a way of living that preserves our freedoms, our rights."
Madison has a long, proud tradition of public protests, from a famous civil rights march in 1969 to violent clashes with police during the Vietnam era. More recently, Walker's law to strip most public employees of their union rights drew massive protests in 2011 and sparked an effort to oust the governor earlier this year. He survived a recall election in June.
But the Solidarity Singers won't accept defeat. Walker's attack on Wisconsin workers was so severe, Barwick said, that he deserves constant reminders of the damage he caused.
Their efforts might seem puzzling. Protests generally persist only as long as there's a chance to bring change. It can be hard to sustain that energy when there's no clear goal or realistic chance of success.
That's what happened with the Occupy movement, which grew out of anger at Wall Street and a financial system perceived to favor the richest 1 percent. The movement grew too large too quickly for organizers to keep up. Without leaders or specific demands, it eroded into an amorphous protest against everything wrong with the world and eventually fell apart.
State Sen. Fred Risser, the nation's longest-serving state lawmaker, is no stranger to protests. The 85-year-old Democrat, who was first elected in 1956, remembers when a Milwaukee priest and "welfare mothers" took over the state Assembly chamber in 1969 to protest proposed welfare cuts. Risser also recalls violent clashes between Madison police and Vietnam War protesters.
The confrontations of the past make him grateful that the Solidarity Singers are nonviolent. But he doubted their singing would make a difference.
"I don't know of any legislators who are changing their views because of that," Risser said. "If their goal is to change the law, that's not going to happen. But I think their goal is to express concern, to have the feeling of participating in peaceful demonstrations."
Walker said the move to limit collective bargaining was necessary to fix the state's $3.6 billion deficit. Democrats took it as a direct assault on unions, one of their core constituencies. Democrats responded by organizing a series of recalls efforts, including one targeting Walker. When the governor cruised to an easy victory, though, most opponents accepted their fate and went home.
But not the Capitol singers. Anywhere from 25 to 50 people — usually a handful of students joined by mostly middle-aged or retired people — still gather every day to sing protest songs for an hour.
Police initially reacted with a hands-off approach, arresting only a handful of belligerent protesters loosely associated with the group. However, the new Capitol police chief has begun cracking down by issuing scores of citations to group leaders, largely for failure to obtain a permit.
Department of Administration spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said virtually every other group that uses the Capitol has complied with the permit policy. She said the agency couldn't make an exception for the singers.
But Barwick and others refuse, saying they shouldn't need the government's permission to protest the government.
On a recent day, Barwick led about 50 people in song, singing selections that included "When We Make Peace," sung to the tune of "When the Saints Go Marching In," and "Scotty, We're Comin' for You."
Some people who work in the Capitol call the singing an unwelcome distraction that can be heard even through a closed door. And some protesters with loose ties to the singing circle have been arrested for screaming at employees. One protester regularly stood outside the Capitol press room, berating reporters and shouting insults about one reporter's recently deceased father.
Barwick, who says his group doesn't condone that sort of activity, said he can't control fringe participants who engage in harassing or criminal behavior.
State Sen. Robert Jauch, a 66-year-old Democrat, defends the singers' music as "the sweet sound of democracy." He said he too remembered the civil rights movement and anti-war movements of the 1960s and `70s, and how songs of those eras helped people sustain their causes.
But Republican state Rep. Stephen Nass said the singers have worn out their welcome with the endless noise.
"They come in and take over the rotunda and argue that it's free speech," he said. "But when they're disrupting visitors and school groups, that's not free speech. They should have to adhere to the same rules as everyone else."
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