One of the things about the Wisconsin protests that has not been written about much is that most of the uprising consists of working class white people. The culture of the space reflects the culture of this place: country and folk singers at the podium, singing 'Solidarity Forever', and the waving of American flags; the planning of a rural Tractorcade that will slowly procession hundreds of farmers to the Capitol.
None of these are intrinsically 'white culture' characteristics or ideas, of course, but this is clearly a working class white, and union-led space. Living in the South, I am distinctly aware of how different it would look and feel if this were happening there, and I think how it looks and feels is important because the issue reflects a majority of who lives in these communities, but not everyone who lives here. I think it is important that elements of mass movement reflect the people who are directly affected, and these people are definitely directly affected. In fact, every single person I met told me stories of how they are directly affected by the bill in some way: "I was homeless before, I am on disability now, but if the bill passes I will go back to the streets", or "I am on Chemo for my cancer and I will lose my healthcare if the bill passes." There are also folks who talked about what they described as the 'domino effect' of employment' - where home health care workers would lose their jobs if the bill passes because their employers would lose their benefits.
What I see among many of the white working class people here is a major change of heart and a re-politicization. This is best exemplified by a huge sign that a middle-aged white man in a worn winter jacket was holding this week at the Capitol that read: "I voted for Walker and I am SO sorry." This man was not marching with the crowd, he was standing by a blockade, facing marchers as we flowed past him, as though he wanted us to read it and accept his apology. I read his face as determined, yet humble.
I believe that in Wisconsin I am in the midst of many working class white people who voted conservative in the November elections based on rights to their guns, or because they don't like the idea of gays getting married, or because they don't like that Obama is Black. I am standing next to them in struggle. This is an unusual position for me. I am standing with them as I am watching parts of them being transformed. Many of these people have realized their guns are not as important as having a job, a house, decent public schools for their kids, or healthcare. They are figuring out that, as Michael Moore said from the Madison Capitol this weekend: "America is not broke...the country is awash in cash...it is just that the wealth is not in our hands." Many of my comrades here have said that it is amazing how many people realize this fight is about capitalism and corporate greed.
Of course, it is not only white people here, and I could not and would not speak to what this experience is for people of color. Shameka Powell, from North Carolina, and currently living in Madison, WI says: "The media is not showing us, but there are people of color in this fight, and we have been in it since it started." What I have seen is masses of mostly white people in the crowd, while a mix of white folks and people of color speak from the podium from positions of authority. I have seen crowds of white people step back to show respect as dignified African-American union shop stewards come through, carrying flags. I have heard women of color leaders in Madison who have rarely been given voice and power they deserve, speak to tens of thousands from the main stage. I have seen class struggle unite white students in hoodies with Black fully-uniformed police and firemen. I have seen the realization that 400 wealthy Americans own more of the US than half of our population does dawn on people who I have known my whole life and have not necessarily shared politics with. I have seen an entire town engaged in struggle - kids, teens, elders. Teachers, firefighters, people with mental illness. I have been passed platters of home-made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and I have eaten pizza called in to Ian's Pizza by Egyptian youth and people from more than 25 countries, and every one of our fifty states.
I feel hopeful about political transformation. I feel hopeful not that all of the oppression in our movements has ceased, but I feel hopeful that we are seeing common interests here in Wisconsin. That some of these working class white people are hearing that maybe what many folks of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and low income people have been trying to tell them about where a culture of greed, wealth, and hate are taking us as a country may be true. Some of them are listening, and are ready to change, and transform their role in this country, starting with their work in this uprising in Wisconsin. Cindy Breunig, a Queer organizer from Wisconsin, told me about being at a Union Rally in the first week of this battle: "There were so many people there--mostly white folks in hunting gear, and Green Bay Packers hats. When the crowd was asked how many of them were at a rally for the first time in their life, I would say about 85% of the room raised their hands."
So, if this is true, what is the role of white folks who have been in social justice movements a long time in supporting these white folks to change and transform? Where are we willing to meet these folks, and what do we have to say to each other? We have a lot to say to each other, I think. We have to ask some important questions, and ask ourselves how much hope, patience, and commitment we have in us. Are folks in the LGBTQ community ready to work with working class people who may not currently support gay marriage, in order to fight the rich to save our right to live, work, and survive? Are we willing to struggle alongside them, not to silence ourselves, but to engage them respectfully in the vision of building broader? Are we willing to stop assuming they are the enemy long enough to get curious about what is happening in Wisconsin?
We have learned from Movement history that building relationship and struggling together in the trenches can yield powerful change. Are we willing to meet at what we share, and build from there? Maybe we start learning to become family around economic justice and class warfare, as I could not help but feel that when they played the song "We are Family" from the podium to more than 50,000 people this weekend, that the whole scene would have been just a little better with some drag queens in sequined down vests. In short, we here as queers, and more of us are needed.
There is so much we can gain from taking leadership in this struggle. This is clearly exemplified by the occupation of the Capitol. To be there is to heal some part deep inside that has been alienated from public space. As a queer person, I often speak to the level of alienation we feel as a community around public space: we are told it is not for us, that we sicken and pervert it, that we should be tolerated in it only if we pretend to be straight, or something other than we are. But, to be in that Capitol right now, to come out of the cold and into the warm light of signs everywhere, and to hear the humming of hundreds chanting, to go upstairs and sit in the 'Family Space', and watch parents rock their kids in big old rocking chairs--is to feel Movement space in public space. It feels something like the US Social Forum, except bigger, and with fewer workshops. I actually was not overcome with emotion being here until I stood on the rotunda of the capitol, in week 3 of this sustained struggle, and hugged another white queer woman I know in Madison who is an organizer here. I just said: "Thank you. I am so proud. Thank you for your organizing.", and she looked at me kindly, with that Midwest friendliness in her face, and said: "What are you thanking me for? I just took 2 days off to shower, eat, and make love to my girlfriend!" I smiled and told her that I would guess that it has been amazing and also not been easy for a queer woman to lead in this space in some ways. She nods and we talk about how the wash of other emotions and the importance of this struggle has carried her through tense times, when people come together who are not used to working together. I walk out of the Capitol with her, into the snow, chanting: "Whose House? Our House."
Queer People: This House, this Capitol, is Our House. They have no right to tell us it is not our struggle, not our place, not our fight. We are workers as much as anyone else, and Queers in Madison are some of many leading a historic moment in our name.
Photo via Intern Jake