Credit: L.A. Kurth.

Recently, I had an experience of solidarity so precious it stands out as a significant moment of my life. And it wasn’t associated with victory. On the contrary, it was accompanied by virtually nothing but defeat. At a recent Working Class Studies conference, I heard from and sang with members of the Wisconsin Solidarity Singalong, an overlapping and unofficial group who have sung historic and updated protest songs in the Wisconsin State Capitol every weekday noon (so as not to disrupt official business) for over 600 days. Let me pause and ask: What would it take for you to protest every weekday noon for 600 working days – without ever being successful? How about if you were ticketed hundreds of times (the “conductor” of the singers had personally received 140 tickets), harassed, punched in the face, sent to trial? This is in the context of spectators being “tossed from the chambers for things like taking a picture, displaying a sign, reading a newspaper or wearing a hat.”

What happens to freedom of speech when you can’t put tape over your mouth to express protest at not being allowed to sing? What happens to you as a result of this commitment? I think the answer is your life changes – and the world around you changes, on an almost invisible yet vitally important scale.

Who are some of these singers? One was an oncology nurse. Being so close to death on the job made her especially mindful of living a meaningful life and protesting in a peaceful way. Another was a labor lawyer who mentioned that prosecutors were trying to invoke the RICO Conspiracy act to stop the “terrorizing” caused by the singing. One was the husband of a school teacher who felt he could not stand by while his wife’s work life was under attack. One was a municipal worker who cleaned the streets and did activism around issues of homelessness. Whenever she told other singers about a homeless person needing a sleeping bag, food, or other supply, she could count on their help, she said. She had an official union, a good one, she said, but her fellow singers “were her real union.” Some were musicians. Several were retired people. I even met a woman who said she had been thinking about where to retire, and when she saw the protests on TV, she moved to Madison. One was a Ph.D. candidate in sociology.

Credit: L.A. Kurth.

The personal bonds between them were warm and visible, but their continuing work also depended on the support and donated labor of many lawyers and citizens. On the surface, the Wisconsin protests have diminished, but a movement remains that cannot be extirpated because it comes from people’s hearts and values. As Pablo Neruda said, “You can pick the flowers but you can’t stop the spring.”

Their singing was robust and radiant, and a group like ours could not help but stand and sing with them, fists raised, tears in our eyes. We were singing not just in the face of the lurch toward fascism that’s happening in Wisconsin (and extends far beyond public workers), but about the long history of courage and connection that is solidarity. And on the musical level, we were continuing the surprisingly long (and reviving) tradition of Labor Choruses. (See DC, Baltimore, Twin Cities, Seattle, New York, San Francisco.)

One unexpected result of the Wisconsin Spring/Occupy the Capitol movement was a huge step forward in addressing homelessness. There are now two homeless people on the Housing Board in Madison where formerly the board did not even consider homelessness to be under its purview. But the biggest result has been a living, on-the-ground democracy, the continued participation and caring of people who had never before in their lives carried a picket sign or signed a petition.

Credit: L.A. Kurth.

Remember those long, long, Reagan-Bush years? For me, one toxic byproduct of that time was a continual sense of rage and despair. My pattern at the time was this: flash of outrage, flurry of activity, desperate waiting, defeat, despair. Repeat until burnout. Many of my political conversations were about how terrible the opposition was. Since then, I’ve thought long and hard about sustainable activism that’s less of a fireworks and more of a Novena candle, an activism that continues past fury – true solidarity with the power to inspire and sustain over the long haul.

Because it’s always a long haul. Unlike Marx, I don’t believe in either the dictatorship of the proletariat (dictatorship? What were you thinking, Karl?) or “the withering away of the state” (now a Republican mantra). But solidarity exists, and we are all capable of it. Even more, in our increasingly isolated society, our well-being depends on it.

Oh, and one more benefit of the Solidarity Singalong? All of them said their singing voices had improved like crazy.

Univeristy of Wisconsin, Madison campus. Credit: L.A. Kurth.


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