How History Set the Stage for Rebellion
by Zoltan Grossman
Published by Portside
March 6, 2011
The Spirit of Wisconsin has inspired millions of Americans,
as labor protests in the state continue to confront union-
busting Governor Scott Walker. Because public employee
unions and public education are under attack across the
country, an immense wave of solidarity has embraced the
Wisconsin Rebellion. People around the U.S. want to learn
the tactics of the uprising to emulate it in their own
states, and learn why Wisconsin's grassroots movement grew
so large, so rapidly.
I am a geography professor (and faculty union member), who
edited an atlas of Wisconsin history, and was active over
three decades in Wisconsin grassroots organizing and media.
I moved six years ago to Olympia, Washington, and now teach
at The Evergreen State College, as a proud member of the
Cheesehead Diaspora. We understand how Wisconsin's rich
social history provides a larger context for the current
Rebellion. A combination of Midwestern progressive values,
alliance building, and community culture have historically
stimulated and shaped grassroots politics in the state. In
our 21st-century society of Big Box stores, it is difficult
to detect histories of resistance, but the Wisconsin
Rebellion shows deeply embedded they still are in many
Wisconsin's history has been one of resistance by people who
banded together to protect what is theirs. Because Native
American nations in the region resisted forced removal to
the West, most managed to remain in their homelands. Most
immigrants to Wisconsin in the 1850s were Germans fleeing
repression after the failed 1848 revolution. As the
Progressive Senator Robert M. LaFollette wrote, Wisconsin
had "a rare and exceptional people. The spirit of liberty
stirring throughout Europe...gave us political refugees who
were patriots and hardy peasants, seeking free government."
Like elsewhere in the country, Milwaukee workers struck for
an 8-hour day in 1886, and lost seven workers in the
infamous Bay View Massacre. Populist farmers took on the
railroad companies during the 1890s Depression, sparking the
formation of a Progressive Republican movement that briefly
took power in the 1910s. The Progressive Party split from
the Republicans and took power during the 1930s Depression
(like the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota), and dairy
farmers launched "milk strikes" against creamery middlemen
that were off skimming off their income.
Unemployment benefit and workers' comp laws, vocational
schools, and the AFSCME public employee union all started in
Wisconsin. After World War II, the Left-Populism of the
LaFollette family lost its competition with the Right-
Populism of Joe McCarthy (who resembles today's Tea
Partiers). But Wisconsin leaders of all political stripes
still had to appeal to the "common people" and Milwaukee
elected Socialist mayors all through the 1950s.
The trend continued into the 1960s-70s with the strong
antiwar movement that resisted the Vietnam "War at Home,"
into the 1980s with the anti-apartheid and family farm
movements (which besieged the Capitol), and into the
1990s-2000s with rural environmental alliances against
mining, energy and water corporations. Even many
conservative-looking Wisconsin citizens have an ingrained
Wisconsin people have a pride in their own communities--
particularly in farm and union households--that is often
stronger than their loyalty to political parties or
bureaucratic nonprofits. Even the professional football team
is owned by the People, and some of its players are now
joining the Rebellion. This is the history that Scott Walker
is running up against, and he is not as skillful as previous
Republican governors at playing this game.
The geography of Wisconsin also offers opportunities to
bring together people from different walks of life. The
state is a meeting ground of the agricultural Midwest,
industrial Great Lakes, and resource-based Northwoods.
Building statewide movements is a challenging exercise in
intersecting different economies, historical experiences,
class and ethnic/racial identities, and generations.
The 1990s statewide anti-mining movement transcended these
divides, bringing together environmentalists with unionists,
urban students with rural residents, and Native American
nations with their former enemies in white sportfishing
groups. They were all united in their concern for clean
water, and their powerful alliance defeated Exxon and the
world's largest mining companies. The chairman of a county
Republican Party once set up a table at his county fair,
took off the brochures for the pro-mining Republican
governor, and substituted them with leaflets against Exxon.
It seemed unusual when Wisconsin police officers refused to
arrest Capitol protesters and instead joined them. In
Washington state, everyone assumed that the cops would
attack protesters, as they often do here. In that kind of
atmosphere, it is easy to quickly dehumanize your enemy, and
polarize a conflict. It is rarely understood that people's
brains have multiple impulses, often resulting in
contradictory beliefs and actions. In Wisconsin's political
history, even some Republicans have this split
consciousness, and are open to a heartfelt anti-corporate
appeal that assumes our common humanity.
Wisconsin social movements have also had some major
weaknesses that prevented statewide alliances. Madison white
activists would often elevate the city's radical history and
status as a state capital and central university campus, and
ignore the rest of the state as a cultural-political
wasteland. But it is remarkable how quickly this urban-rural
divide has been overcome in 2011, in a Rebellion that
encompasses diverse regions and ethnic/racial identities.
State employees and supporters have come to the Capitol from
Milwaukee, the industrial Fox Valley, rural farm towns, and
the small cities such as Eau Claire, LaCrosse, and
Janesville. They have also held their own large rallies in
these small cities that have become the real battlegrounds
for the heart and soul of America.
Midwestern Sense of Community
Social movement alliances have flourished in Wisconsin
because of a sense of community that emerges from Midwestern
history. Like elsewhere in America, Big Box stores have
destroyed small businesses, and people have become more
individualistic and isolated. However, deep social networks
still exist and can make a difference when they become
active. People with different opinions can pull together at
key times when they use respectful communication and join on
issues where they agree. These relationships are not touchy-
feely, but simply make people feel that belong in a
community, that everyone has something to contribute, and
that we can look to ourselves rather than to a political
elite for the answers.
Wisconsin historian Jack Holzhueter observes that many
Madisonians are only one generation removed from the dairy
farm, where everyone had to work together, and no one wanted
to stick out. The same is true of labor households that
value the idea of solidarity, even if their union
bureaucracies no longer uphold class consciousness. Notice
that the Wisconsin Uprising is not identified with any
particular leader (or even group of leaders), because
everyone is pitching in with the chores.
Living now on the West Coast, I have been struck by the
culture of individualism here. Parks have benches for
couples, but not many picnic tables for larger gatherings.
Meetings sometimes start without round-robin introductions,
rather than getting to know each other's names and stories.
In moving West, many European Americans also moved from an
extended family to a nuclear family, from richly ethnic
communities to a homogeneous white racial identity, and from
church socializing to secular isolation. Because the
collective social fabric has been disrupted, it is more
difficult to get people to agree and work together--but it
is not impossible.
Rebuilding a sense of community is vital not only to spark
future Wisconsin Rebellions, but to enable greater
individual creativity. Most of the signs in the protests
(and solidarity rallies around the country) have been
handmade and humorous, not prefab and dour. The rallies
evoke the feeling of grassroots movements rather than
political campaigns, because Wisconsinites would rather have
a real party than join a political party. This Rebellion is
not just about Democratic politicians finally finding their
spines; it is about working people who are finding their own
voice and their own collective strength.
Organizers around the country are learning and drawing on
their own states' progressive histories and community
traditions. Each generation has something to offer, and can
learn from each other, and each generation also has the
potential to develop new tactics and do the unexpected.
Effective alliance-builders are trying to weave together
different issues without weakening the identities of
distinct social groups. They are getting out of the
progressive ghettos, and trying to bring together different
regions within their state that represent different economic
and ethnic/racial histories.
But the Spirit of Wisconsin is not just about political
tactics and strategies. It is about building a greater sense
of community through warmth and hospitality. It is about
gathering to share food and exchange ideas, rather than
simply having meetings. It is about overcoming apathy and
fear through strengthening our social bonds. Americans are
trying to find this real human solidarity in our own towns
and neighborhoods, rather than simply waiting for the next
rally or election. Wisconsin shows us what is possible in
America, but change always begins at home.
[Zoltan Grossman edited and produced maps for Wisconsin's
Past and Present: A Historical Atlas, by the Wisconsin
Cartographers Guild (University of Wisconsin Press, 2002).
He is a member of the faculty in Geography and Native
Studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.,
and can be reached at [log in to unmask] or through his
website at http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz ]
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