Singing for Justice

by Phil Anderson

“Have you sung a song for freedom? Or marched that picket line?
Have you been to jail for justice? Then you’re a friend of mine” 
excerpt from “Have You Been Jailed For Justice” by Anne Feeney

In Madison, Wisconsin people have been singing for freedom and justice at the state capitol every business day since March 2011! For over 2000 days people have come to the Solidarity Sing Along. As Governor Scott Walker, the object of this extraordinary protest, exits the political stage I think it is appropriate to honor these singers. 

This tour de force began in March of 2011 as a part of the massive protests in response to  Walker’s Act 10 budget cuts and anti-union actions. These protests, called the “Wisconsin Uprising,” were unprecedented in size and duration. The biggest day of protest saw 100,000 people in the Capitol square. One of the protesters was Steve Burns, a teacher at a Madison community college. He decided to organized a sing along. The action he thought would last a week gathered momentum and became the Solidarity Sing Along.  

For over seven years people have come to the Capitol Monday through Friday at noon to sing traditional labor and civil rights songs. Many traditional songs like “We Shall Overcome” and “This Land is Your Land” are timeless. They speak truth to power as well today as in the past. But in keeping with folk music traditions, the sing along participants changed the lyrics of many songs to fit the current situation. For example, the classic “Solidarity Forever” added a verse, 

“They divide us by our color, they divide us by our tongue,
They divide us men and women, they divide us old and young,
But they’ll tremble at our voices when they hear these verses sung,
For the Union makes us strong” 

Monday through Thursday they sing a cappella in the Capitol’s rotunda. Friday’s sing along is held outside so people can bring instruments which are not allowed in the Capitol. Attendance varies each day from a dozen to 150. I was able to attend once on a Friday in 2013. There were easily 100 people making a lot of noise with drums, guitars, banjos, a trombone and many voices. It was inspiring! 

The Solidarity Sing  Along is remarkable for reasons other than its longevity. It is remarkable that the action of one person created this long lasting event. It is remarkable that this happened with no formal organization. The sing along has no formal leaders or members. It collects no dues and doesn’t send out fund raising emails. It is not a singing group doing performances. It is an event and a gathering of citizens. And citizen action sustained the effort for a long time. 

Walker, of course, responded with the age old autocratic tactic of sending in the police. Can’t have people singing in public in a public place! The pretext was the 1979 state rule that required groups gathering at the Capitol to get a permit. In 2011 the administration tightened the rules and began requiring groups of four or more people to get a permit. Solidarity Sing Along participants refused to comply with these new rules, believing them to be unconstitutional. In 2012 the capitol police started arresting and ticketing people. In the summer of 2013 more aggressive police tactics were employed. Police increased arrests, tried restraining singers, and even deploying a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), an anti-riot device used by police for crowd control, inside the Capitol building. But the singers kept singing. 

It is interesting how autocratic leaders often adopt self-defeating behavior in the face of public  displeasure with their leadership. Frequently they overreact by using police to break up peaceful demonstrations, make arrests, harass opposition groups, and otherwise curtail civil liberties. Often this leads to unnecessary civil strife, negative press, and only strengthens the opposition. This happened with the sing along protests. The number of sing along participants had been declining until the arrests started. The arrests gave the effort new strength. News videos of white-haired grandmothers being led away in handcuffs did not help Walker’s image or his political objectives. The sing along gained national and international attention. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Wisconsin  National Lawyers Guild got involved. Celebrity musicians including Arlo Guthrie, Billy Bragg, John McCutcheon, and Dar Williams added their voices to the group. 

Why is it so hard for leaders to understand tolerance, compromise, or at least the appearance of conciliation might work better? Proverbs 15:1 says, “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words [or actions] stir up anger.” Talking with the opposition might defuse public anger better than police action. But no one ever accused Walker of being a good leader. Just because a person is in power doesn’t mean he/she is effective or smart!

Eventually nine out of thirteen judges dismissed cases against the singers, finding the permit rules unconstitutional. On January 29, 2015, the Wisconsin Appeals Court upheld these rulings declaring the permit process unconstitutional. The singers won, and Walker lost, the singing contest. 
What did all this accomplish? Did the sing along protests do any good? Often with political activism it is hard to see a specific positive outcome. Often one is only hoping for a better future. A person does what is right because it is the right thing to do, not because it will have immediate success. I think the sing along was a success simply because it happened. Walker is gone but they are still singing. As one of their re-purposed songs says (Tune of “I’ll Fly Away”), 

“Every day at noon we’re gonna be here, we’re not going away.
Until love drives out the politics of fear, we’re not going away.  
We’re not going away, oh Scotty! We’re not going away! 
Until that day when Justice holds sway We’re not going away! 

The extraordinary dedication to justice and freedom of speech exhibited by the many people . who participated in the sing along should be honored and remembered. The Solidarity Sing Along should inspire us all to be more active citizens.