Greg Gordon Speaks about Singing Every Day at The Wisconsin State Capitol for Solidarity Singalong (and Getting Arrested)

By Jessica Ferrer, Cfdtrade’s intern. Jessica also interviewed Barbara Parramore on Moral Monday in North Carolina.

While the rest of us are singing in the shower, Greg Gordon and other Wisconsinites are taking their singing to the Capitol Rotunda in Madison. Governor Scott Walker and his administration are the target audience, with the singers meeting every weekday at noon. Gordon says they are singers, not protestors, maintaining a peaceful presence in the Capitol since 2011. However, the Capitol police have started arresting the singers and issuing citations for participating in an “unlawful event” based on controversial permit requirements. The singers don’t have a permit and won’t get a permit. Gordon explains why.

JF: Is it true that a permit is needed for the singers to be in the Capitol, and if so, why hasn’t one been obtained?

GG: It’s true that the Walker Administration has recently altered the permit requirements and manipulated the administrative code provisions in an attempt to convince the public that the singers are required to get a permit. Most of the singers are convinced that the U.S. and Wisconsin Constitutions trump Walker’s permit scheme and that no permit is required. The legal issues will be decided in various court cases that are pending.

A few weeks ago, a federal judge issued a temporary injunction against the Walker administration that found two sections of their permit scheme unconstitutional, but did not enjoin them from requiring a permit for events in the Capitol expected to attract more than twenty people. Since then, the Capitol Police have begun declaring the noon Sing Along an “unlawful event” and have arrested people for participating. So far they have arrested about 130 people, issued 245 citations for participating in an unlawful event, and file 10 misdemeanor charges against people they claim were obstructing arrest. Among those arrested were an 80 year old woman and her 85 year old husband, numerous members of the Madison chapter of the Raging Grannies, several members of Veterans for Peace who were in Madison for their national convention, and two working journalists who were just there covering the story. One of those journalists is the editor of The Progressive magazine.

[The case that generated the restraining order against Walker is scheduled for a full trial in January 2014. –JF]

JF: A conservative group had a counter-protest in the Capitol to “show how easy” it was to get a permit. What would you say to them?

GG: The Solidarity Sing Along singers have never suggested that getting a permit was difficult, so it wasn’t clear why the counter-protesters made that point. I hope they had fun, and that if they were convinced that singing TV theme songs was an important contribution to the public discourse and they could only schedule their event on that one day, it was a good idea for them to reserve the rotunda. The Sing Along participants sang outside that day, as they always do on days where another event is scheduled indoors.

JF: What’s been your involvement since the protests started in 2011, and then the Solidarity Sing Along?

GG: I was at the State Capitol many times during the big protests in February and March of 2011. On the evening of March 9th I joined thousands of others who “stormed” the Capitol when the legislature suddenly announced that they would be voting on Governor Walker’s union-busting bill. I stayed overnight in the Capitol after the state Senate passed the bill and joined hundreds of others the next morning occupying the hallway and foyer outside the state Assembly chambers. Eventually we were dragged out and the bill was passed. The first Sing Along was held the next day, March 11, 2011. I began singing at the Sing Along in June 2011 and I have attended several times a week since then.

JF: What’s the goal of the Sing Along?

GG: There are many goals depending on who is asked, but most singers would probably agree that the goal of the Sing Along is to be there every day reminding lawmakers and the governor that we are paying attention, and that we plan to occupy that space for a portion of every day to prevent the Walker Administration from thinking they can operate in secret.

JF: What is the strategy of the Sing Along?

GG: Come to the Capitol at noon every weekday. Sing songs in support of civil rights, labor rights, and social justice for one hour. Come back and do it again the next day.

JF: Will the Sing Along change closer to the gubernatorial race in 2014, specifically if Walker seeks reelection? Will they get stronger?

GG: The Sing Along strategy almost certainly will not change. We might see more people attend as we get closer to the election.

JF: The Solidarity Sing Along hasn’t received the same media attention as Occupy Wall Street but has been going on longer. Would media attention make a difference? Do you want it?

GG: It wouldn’t make a difference in terms of what the Sing Along does, but with Capitol Police recently starting to arrest people for singing in the Capitol, media are starting to pay more attention. It does help highlight the bullying methods of the Walker Administration. Most Wisconsinites are uneasy with that style of governing. On the other hand, we’ve seen a lot of incorrect statements about the Sing Along repeated by media, just like we saw with the Occupy movement.

JF: What do you want to say to Gov. Walker?

GG: Nothing. Walker is a symptom of a larger disease – the emergence of unlimited anonymous campaign funding due to recent court rulings. There will always be politicians willing to sell themselves out to special interests. Walker is the latest but he just happens to be operating during a window in time where the corporate money supply for politicians is unlimited. Eventually we will see the pendulum swing back. It’s common sense that corporations are not people and money is not speech.

JF: Moral Mondays have been going on in NC. There are similar protests across the country. Is the government listening? Do you think change is going to come?

GG: Sadly, it seems that the governments in those states are not listening. We are happy to see that groups in Texas, Michigan, and Minnesota are copying our Sing Along model, with our blessings. When citizens show up in their state Capitols on a regular basis and voice their dissent, at least their voices will be heard. Of course, being heard and being listened to are not the same, but when money runs everything and you have no money, raising your voice is all you can do. I believe that movements like Move to Amend will be successful at changing the campaign finance system, but it will take years.

JF: Are the protests a state movement or a national movement? What do you think is the outcome?

GG: I’m so focused on our daily Sing Along and local issues that I really don’t know if this is the beginning of a national movement. I think when we Wisconsin uprising participants see other groups of citizens go to their state Capitols and demand to be heard, we like to think we had a little influence by showing that it can be done peacefully, creatively, yet assertively. The outcome is not entirely predictable. The only thing I can predict right now is that if today is a weekday, there will be people singing at the Wisconsin Capitol.

JF: What would victory look like for the singers? When do you think that victory will come?

GG: The Sing Along is growing, and each singer has their own definition of victory. Scott Walker’s last day as governor will be a glorious day, but we have already learned that political victories like that are short-lived. Victory will be restoring Wisconsin’s traditional way of governing ourselves–with consensus, respectful dialogue, compromise when needed and fearless passion for progress.

JF: How long will you keep singing?

GG: Until I’m dead.

JF: Have you been arrested? What was it like?

GG: I was arrested on August 1st, 2013 for singing in the Wisconsin Capitol. There wasn’t much to it. I didn’t converse with the police officer during the ordeal. I was handcuffed, taken to the Capitol basement, given a citation, and released. There is a photograph of me singing while being handcuffed. I posted it online and that image has done more to influence my family and friends than anything I’ve said or written about politics in the past two years. Even my conservative friends – people who voted for Scott Walker – look at that photo and admit that the Walker Administration is abusing its power.

* * *

Lambert here: The Wisconsin Singalong could be classified as #37 of Gene Sharp’s .* Here’s ; ; it would be nice to have more examples in comments. One might also classify it as #141 (“Civil disobedience of ‘illegitimate’ laws), and #137 — “Refusal of an assemblage or meeting to disperse” — since “dispersing” they most certainly are not! To me, this method seems playful and Otpor-like, as discussed by commenter affinis:

Another important feature of Otpor was a heavy dose of pragmatic strategic thinking. Many “decentralized” groups wish to eschew strategy – and that’s a huge error in my view. Moreover, for many groups on the radical left, “strategy” means intractable useless debates on grand ideological visions. IMO, there should instead be a focus on empirically, pragmatically, what works. Otpor did well on this – and I find myself wondering whether that, in part, reflected the composition of the founding group – some of the core founders were scientists (e.g. biologists) as opposed to political theorists and philosophers. They came together after an initial movement had collapsed (in part because Milosevic had planted provocateurs who initiated violence, leading to collapse of public support). Terribly depressed, a small group of friends got together in a Belgrade café, to try to dissect what went wrong and to strategize about what might actually work.

(In this connection one might note the large number of non-philosophers, non-political scientists in the university adjunct community, .)

One question I have whenever I hear the word “strategy” is “How do I know when we win?”

JF: What would victory look like for the singers? When do you think that victory will come?

GG: The Sing Along is growing, and each singer has their own definition of victory. Scott Walker’s last day as governor will be a glorious day, but we have already learned that political victories like that are short-lived. Victory will be restoring Wisconsin’s traditional way of governing ourselves–with consensus, respectful dialogue, compromise when needed and fearless passion for progress.

Readers, what do you think of Greg Gordon’s definition of victory? And pragmatically, do you think the Wisconsin Singalong’s tactics (Methods #37, #141, #137) can contribute to that victory? (Case studies and more examples of success and failure most welcome.)

NOTE * I don’t think Sharp’s classification system is the be-all and end-all for this subject matter; for example, there seems no easy way to classify Methods like the “Mad as Hell Doctors” bus tour. I have wondered whether Sharp’s focus has been on European and Mediterranean data, as opposed to countries like the United States, which are of a continental scale (hence the need for a bus tour). And I don’t think classification is an end in itself; rather, it’s a mode of pattern recognition, helpful in filtering and focusing the news, which we had better do, because our famously free press won’t.

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17 comments

  1. “Governor Scott Walker and his administration is [are] the target audience…”

    (sorry, can’t help it)

  2. RanDomino

    They didn’t “storm” the capitol. They ACTUALLY stormed the capitol. It was locked but people got in through windows and swarmed the doors. Not being there is something I regret. When ten thousand people want to get inside a building, there’s not much that a couple dozen cops can do about it. That’s a major lesson we seem to be ignoring. I can go into my theory why.

    The purpose of the singalong, IMO, is not for “free speech” or “first amendment” or “to remind lawmakers and the governor that we are paying attention”. They don’t give a fuck. No; the real function of the SSA is one of defiance. The point is to be a token statement that we stormed the capitol two years ago and we can do it again, because it’s our house, as a symbol of the political economy Wisconsin was built on: social democracy, or “Wisconsin’s traditional way of governing ourselves–with consensus, respectful dialogue, compromise when needed and fearless passion for progress”. Of course, I disagree that social democracy is tenable or ideal, but it’s important that people have dignity. Without something along those lines, people will never resist.

    What radicals and pro-revolutionaries have to keep in mind is that every popular revolt is a conservative revolt: The cry is always, “This time they go too far”. Sometimes “too far” is in purely economic terms (cutting pay, demanding more labor, economic restructuring i.e. eliminating the hereditary privileges of the nobility or communal rights of villages, etc), and sometimes it’s on social terms, such as myths a society is built on. Wisconsin 2011 exemplified this. We all missed what was going on. We thought it was a spontaneous uprising against neoliberalism and a mass reawakening of the radical labor spirit (especially since, from our perspective, what motivated the protests was righteous indignation after the headline “National Guard Ready for Labor Unrest” was on every front page in the state; referring to if prison guards strike that the nat. guard would operate them, but we saw a different subtext; and one thing you don’t do to people who consider themselves free is threaten them). But for the overwhelming majority of the participants, it was nothing but a protest against wage cuts. They didn’t want power. They don’t even COMPREHEND power. So all of those people who went into the occupied capitol described it as if it was a religious experience, which makes sense when you understand that they had no understanding of what was going on. Those of us with experience opposing capitalism walked right in and took about five minutes to recognize it as a protest camp, the kind that are consciously established by organized collectives to house and thousands of protesters at events like the G8 and WTO meetings. To everyone else, the occupation was nothing but a dream to wake up from.

    “Walker is a symptom of a larger disease – the emergence of unlimited anonymous campaign funding due to recent court rulings. There will always be politicians willing to sell themselves out to special interests. Walker is the latest but he just happens to be operating during a window in time where the corporate money supply for politicians is unlimited. Eventually we will see the pendulum swing back. It’s common sense that corporations are not people and money is not speech.”

    This whole paragraph just makes me said about how pathetic people’s analysis is.

    “Readers, what do you think of Greg Gordon’s definition of victory? And pragmatically, do you think the Wisconsin Singalong’s tactics (Methods #37, #141, #137) can contribute to that victory?”

    Alone, certainly not. In tandem with electoral politics, highly doubtful. The DPW is utterly corrupt (they might, however, win, which would cause a lot of people to declare victory and then cover their ears and close their eyes when the DPW continues their tradition of being bastards) and the Greens are a joke (especially now that the Manskes left, and good riddance). The thing about nonviolence is that it relies on someone else seeing the brutality being done to the nonviolent and saying, “Hey! That’s not right!” and kicking the oppressor’s ass. Cf. the Civil Rights Movement relying on the federal government; the ‘passivism’ of the Danes under the Nazis (“Thanks, Red Army!”); the 5-7 October 2000 riots that gave muscle to Otpor!’s antics.

    This also cannot be totally separated from the resistance to the Gogebic Taconite mine. While the starry-eyed liberals were trying to get another Democrat motherfucker in power, the radicals and environmentalists were focusing on stopping that project, which will likely taint the Kakagon Sloughs where the Bad River Band of Ojibwe (Chippewa) harvest the last coastal wild rice on Lake Superior and remain in their pre-settler homeland. They consider this mine to be a death sentence because it would be in a sulfide body, tainting the Bad River with sulfuric acid and possibly mercury and other heavy metals. In May or so the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe established a harvest camp near the proposed mine site in solidarity and in order to highlight treaty rights going back to the 1830s (this was a major fight in the 1980s-90s, the “Walleye War”). In June a small group of people who may have been guests of the camp dressed in all black and harassed the mine site; Katie Kloth was later arrested for stealing a mine worker’s phone. This has been largely considered a fiasco, but luckily it was overshadowed by the mine company’s subsequent use of an Arizona-based paramilitary outfit to keep guard with assault rifles. Those pictures have shocked a lot of the same people who are paying attention to the Solidarity Sing-Along.

    1. zwei_dinge

      Thank you for this excellent comment. The rejection of philosophy and strategy in favor of mere tactics is a form of instrumentalism. It inevitably leads to the deployment of ostensibly neutral means in the service of capitalism, Gene Sharp and the Bulldozer Revolution being a case in point. Otpor! replaced a nationalist quasisocialist with a liberal prime minister and president who crushed the working class forces that had helped bring them to power by occupying factories and blockading streets. Debates about political philosophy don’t just occur because humanities grad students like to show off their feathers, but because there are real divisions within any opposition. If you refuse to have those debates, victory will go to whichever faction of the opposition has the most power.

    2. affinis

      re: >”They didn’t ‘storm’ the capitol. They ACTUALLY stormed the capitol. It was locked but people got in through windows and swarmed the doors.”
      Maybe this is too much of a quibble, but I was one of the “stormers”. It’s easy to over-romanticize. It wasn’t the case that all the doors were locked and we did a “storming of the Bastille”. Though as masses of people kept flooding in, police tried to close and lock doors, but the deluge was too great for that to succeed. And to my mind, that particular episode pales in importance relative to the remainder of the occuption (which didn’t really involve “storming”).
      And – I know you’ll differ with me on this – the PR around the damage to a couple doors in that episode did us absolutely no favors with regard to winning over the rest of Wisconsin.

    3. Rebecca Kemble

      “No; the real function of the SSA is one of defiance.”

      Exactly. The SSA is a holding action that has been maintained by a hundred or so people over the past two and a half years. Their spirit of defiance and their joyous creativity maintains an important symbolic space for that time when a more broad resistance is mobilized by organized groups that DO have explicit philosophies, strategies and tactics.

  3. Hillary

    As someone who grew up in Wisconsin, I’m sad and have zero intention of moving back, even though I can see Wisconsin from my office. My former childhood home is surrounded by frac sand mining. My parents love their place on the lake, but the reasons to stay are disappearing.

    The sense of solidarity and a social contract are gone. I absolutely hope Greg’s definition of victory can be achieved, but I don’t know how.

  4. I’m supportive of any efforts to resist and ridicule injustice, but I don’t find anything especially encouraging about this statement:

    Victory will be restoring Wisconsin’s traditional way of governing ourselves–with consensus, respectful dialogue, compromise when needed and fearless passion for progress.

    Doesn’t every single politician say pretty much the same thing? It all sounds good, sure, but what does it mean, apart from electing more Democrats? Gordon obviously recognizes that electoral victories are not enough, but he doesn’t seem to have much else to offer. Is he expecting that the sing-alongs will somehow create respectful dialogue and consensus inside the halls of the legislature?

    Like I said, I support what they’re doing, but sing-alongs alone, as RanDomino points out, are not going to be very effective. And I would point out that, strictly speaking, Gordon’s definition of “victory” does not rise to the level of strategy. A strategy requires clear goals to be accomplished but Gordon’s definition seems rather vague. Who is to decide whether respectful dialogue has been restored or whether our passion for progress is adequately fearless?

    But being visible with our concerns and our values is always a good thing, so I hope the sing-alongers keep it up and get plenty of media attention for their efforts. I also hope this is just the beginning of their movement, and not it’s apex.

    Someday we may just .

    1. RanDomino

      “what does it mean”

      Briefly, there was a general understanding among the population that government employees, civil servants, and particularly politicians work directly for us. Any of us could approach and talk to any of them directly (but respectfully) without feeling intimidated. They were actually expected to listen and do favors (such as finding some information, answering questions, pointing us to who we actually needed to talk to, etc) and try to compromise. This hasn’t been destroyed in the bureaucracy yet as far as I’m aware. It’s not a politician thing but a social thing (probably going back to the influence of Scandinavian and German Socialist immigrants in the mid-1800s), and one which Wisconsinites seemed to know was rare but took for granted.
      Of course, it was temporary by virtue of not being based on organized power, but the ‘shock doctrine’ events of February 2011 were a sort of coup d’etat against that system.

      1. RanDomino

        Also, another aspect is/was that major changes (such as unilaterally yanking collective bargaining for public workers) must be discussed among the population for at least a year or two, with a ton of public hearings and chances for debate, before being implemented. Act 10 was sprung on us in just a couple weeks.

  5. Hugo Stiglitz

    As someone who grew up in, and went to university in Madison, it is difficult, heartbreaking even, to watch what is going on there from afar. The Capital building used to be open at all hours, year round from what I recall. There were problems with homeless people sleeping there – especially beginning in the 80s – but this was dealt with as humanely as possible (nearby shelters were available for some), the doors remained open.
    There have always been tensions between the far more liberal elements in Wisconsin, particularly in Madison, and the more conservative parts of the state, but these differences were handled like adults and amicably for the most part. Even when most of the nation seemed locked in bitter partisanship starting in the 90s or so, Wisconsin was largely unaffected (as far as I could see, having been gone by then). This new strain of Republicanism has finally infected the state. It’s tragic and deeply disturbing to me.

  6. Steve Burns

    ” I support what they’re doing, but sing-alongs alone, as RanDomino points out, are not going to be very effective.”
    No, really?
    Someone once described the Sing Along as “the pilot light of the Wisconsin uprising,” and I think that’s about right. The overall level of opposition to Walker rises and falls, and isn’t always centered in Madison – good work is being done in northern Wisconsin to oppose the mine – but the Sing Along is that small, constant flame right at the center of power. And that’s what galls the Walker administration: They control the Governor’s office, both chambers of the legislature, the Supreme Court and the Attorney Generals office, but here are a few hundred square feet right inside the Capitol that they still can’t get TOTAL control of. It’s literally driving them insane.

  7. Greg Gordon

    I hope I was able to convey that the Sing Along is different things to different people, but nobody thinks that the Sing Along is going to effect change by itself (except perhaps by expanding free speech rights, which is a battle the Walker administration chose.)

    There are participants of the Sing along deeply involved in every issue mentioned on this comment thread. There is an especially strong bond between some of the singers and many of the people in northern Wisconsin trying to protect the Penokee hills from the mining company.

    I think what makes the Sing Along compelling is that it allows a wide range of activists a chance to do something together. It’s a morale booster, a stress-buster, and a motivator. It’s not going to overthrow the Walker Administration.

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