After Wisconsin and the “We Are One” Rallies, Where Now for Mass Protest in America?

6.4.11

On April 4, the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., over a thousand events — teach-ins, vigils, faith services and town hall meetings — took place across the United States, as part of a campaign, backed by unions, faith groups, civil and human rights activists, students and progressive groups, entitled, “We Are One: Respect Our Rights.”

As the “We Are One” website stated:

These actions honor the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated April 4, 1968 in Memphis,  Tenn., where he had gone to stand with sanitation workers demanding their dream: The right to bargain collectively for a voice at work and a better life. The workers were trying to form a union with AFSCME.

Union members, people of faith, and civil and human rights activists, students and other progressive allies are joining with working people in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and dozens of other states where well-funded, right-wing corporate politicians are trying to take away the rights Dr. King gave his life for: the freedom to bargain, to vote, to afford a college education and justice for all workers, immigrant and native-born.

43 years after Dr. King’s assassination, there was a particular resonance to the “We Are One” actions, partly because the campaign for collective bargaining rights for sanitation workers in 1968 found its modern-day counterpart in attempts by numerous Republican governors — led by Scott Walker in Wisconsin — to remove collective bargaining rights from public sector workers, using budget deficits as an excuse for a policy driven solely by a malignant right-wing ideology.

Unnoticed by Walker, and other Tea Party candidates who found themselves in power because of a rightward lurch on the part of voters in the mid-term elections, there had not actually been a commensurate shift in people’s attitudes, and his assault on workers’ fundamental rights — far from gaining him support — turned into a protest movement whose size and intensity astonished everyone, as 100,000 people converged on Madison, the state capitol, and thousands of protestors occupied the capitol building.

I covered these events in my articles, The New American Revolution: Are Wisconsin’s 100,000 Protestors A Sign of Further Resistance to Come? and Video: Michael Moore Tells Wisconsin Protestors, “America Ain’t Broke! The Only Thing That’s Broke is the Moral Compass of the Rulers”, and I’d like to add another perspective below, by Jenni Dye, a Madison-area attorney who has been actively involved in the protests at the Wisconsin Capitol, and maintains a blog here. This is an excellent insight into how a solidarity movement can inspire people to push for real change, and my only complaint is with Jenni’s statement, “I knew that this was different than anything I’d seen before and, possibly, anything I’ll ever see again” — not because I disagree with the first part of that sentence, but because I think the second part unnecessarily suggests that what has been happening in Madison may not, in fact, be the harbinger of something bigger to come, when it absolutely needs to be the start of something, and not some kind of one-off event.

Fifty days of Wisconsin labor solidarity have changed my life
By Jenni Dye, The Isthmus, April 5, 2011

Monday, April 4, marked the 50th day since protests started at the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison over a bill that would gut public employees’ collective bargaining rights. Fifty days of Wisconsinites standing up and making their voices heard. Through hearing testimony, through meetings with their elected officials, through letters and emails to the governor’s office. Through protests, through where they chose to sleep, through signs, through chants. Through showing up and taking part. Through recall canvassing and through adding their signatures to recall petitions. Fifty days.

When the protests started, I didn’t know enough about the bill to know what its impact would be. I just knew that I was opposed to the idea of a budget repair bill that substantially changed workers’ rights being rammed through the Legislature in a week, which was the reported Republican plan. I thought that, at the very least, it was an issue that deserved more time for the public to gather information and participate in the debate. So I showed up at the Capitol to make sure my voice was heard. My dad showed up. My friends showed up. People who I never even knew were interested in politics showed up. And it became something a lot bigger than any of us.

On February 16, when I stood in the stairwell leading to the room in which the Joint Finance Committee was about to vote, I yelled with the crowd “The people united will never be defeated,” and I knew that this was different than anything I’d seen before and, possibly, anything I’ll ever see again. As that first week unfolded, I educated myself about the contents of the bill and found I didn’t at all like what it contained. My motivations changed from merely procedural to substantive — I wanted to stop that proposal in its tracks. I wanted compromise. I wanted our elected officials to sit at a table and talk.

During that first week, which I mostly spent protesting with my dad, my former teachers and a few close friends, I felt a sort of hope that had been dormant for years. Hope that people joining forces really can make a difference. On Day 50, I stood on the State Street steps to the Capitol and listened as Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke about Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy on the anniversary of his assassination.

Jackson told the crowd that it was our responsibility to ensure that Dr. King lived on through us, that his dream was not ended with a single bullet. As Jackson spoke, I stood next to a fellow protester whom I had never met 50 days ago, but now consider a friend. Behind me, two protesters held a sign bearing the Martin Luther King quote: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Our voices have been largely ignored by Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Scott, Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald and their allies. They tried to trample our hope by locking us out of the Capitol. But we brought our sleeping bags and blankets and showed them that it didn’t matter if we slept inside or out, our opposition remained steady.

They held public meetings with minimal notice, trying to cut us out of the process. But we showed up in force anyway, and we refused to allow violations of Wisconsin’s open meetings law to go unchallenged. They tried to make us go away by “passing” the legislation, but that night, we filled the streets surrounding the Capitol and continued our protest. And now, seven weeks after we started, we are still standing up and making our voices heard. Letting them know we don’t like their budget repair bill, their infringement of our constitutional rights, or their way of “opening” Wisconsin for business by closing our open government.

We may not have gotten through to Gov. Walker or the Fitzgeralds or their friends yet. But those of you who have also devoted your time and your energy to this movement have gotten through to me in a way that is permanent and life-changing. For every moment in my past where I have questioned whether there are good people out there, the compassion and commitment of those raising their voices at our Capitol have proved 10 times over that there are people who care about each other. Care about perfect strangers. Care about Wisconsin. Care about democracy and open government. Care that things are done the right way, even when the proposal itself is abhorrent.

There have been days when my voice is not strong, but I’ve found that I can rely on others to carry the load. There have been days when I literally might have collapsed into a sobbing heap on the Capitol floor were it not for the kindness of friends and perfect strangers. There are days when a hug is an absolute lifeline to maintaining any sanity at all. Sometimes relief and renewal have come in the form of inspiration from the words of speakers at a rally and sometimes from perfect strangers who are also dedicating their time to the cause. I’ll never be able to thank you all individually. I’ll never be able to thank you all enough.

It’s not enough, but I will forever be grateful for what the individuals involved in this movement have given me. And I plan to keep giving it my all until we take Wisconsin back.

***

What happens next remains to be seen. On the specific problems emanating from Republicans’ assault on workers’ rights, the struggle continues, as Jenni Dye indicated. In polls, the Republicans’ misreading of the public mood was confirmed by a Gallup poll last week, in which 48 percent of those polled sided with the unions, against 39 percent who sided wth governor Walker and other aggressive Republican governors, and Walker’s political response to the protest is also under examination.

After 14 Democrat senators fled Wisconsin to prevent Walker from pushing through his bill, which, as well as bringing collective bargaining rights to an end, inflicted savage spending cuts on the public sector, Walker and his fellow Republicans responded, as Green Left Weekly reported, by “separat[ing] out the anti-union measures from the rest of the budget “repair” bill — claiming it was only budget measures that required the Democrat senators to be present for the vote” — and on March 11 Walker signed his bill into law.

As high school students staged a walkout throughout the state, and 100,000 protestors again converged on Madison, there were calls for a national strike — not seen in Wisconsin since 1934 — and Mark Miller, the leader of the Democrats in Wisconson’s Senate, who had fled to Illinois on Feb. 17 to block the vote, told the New York Times, “In 30 minutes, 18 state senators undid 50 years of civil rights in Wisconsin,” adding, “Their disrespect for the people of Wisconsin and their rights is an outrage that will never be forgotten.”

What has been happening in Madison, Wisconsin — and in other state capitols — is clearly a huge movement, largely ignored by the mainstream media, which appears to have a momentum of its own. It is this momemtum that will need to be maintained if the protests are to continue (and to be confirmed as a national movement), and this will partly depend on local developments — in Wisconsin, for example, the implementation of governor Walker’s changes has, for the time being, been blocked by a state judge who is hearing a challenge to the way it was approved — but it will also depend on whether there are enough people with enough charisma and persuasion to create a true mass movement calling for genuine political change.

The timing is undoubtedly right, as exploitative lawmakers reveal that they no longer care about the majority of their voters, and care only about protecting the interests of the rich and the powerful (as is also happening in the UK), but to grasp what is needed, I believe that people need to look once more at the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., and, in particular, at how the radical message of his later years has been written out of the history books.

To that end, I’m concluding this article by cross-posting below an important article by veteran activists Jeff Cohen (most recently, the co-founder of Roots Action) and Norman Solomon, president of the Institute for Public Accuracy, first published, I believe, in 1995, which addresses these particular omissions, noting, at its heart, how, in the last years before his murder, Dr. King “decried the huge income gaps between rich and poor, and called for ‘radical changes in the structure of our society’ to redistribute wealth and power,” declaring that “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

The Martin Luther King You Don’t See on TV
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

It’s become a TV ritual: Every year on April 4, as Americans commemorate Martin Luther King’s death, we get perfunctory network news reports about “the slain civil rights leader.”

The remarkable thing about these reviews of King’s life is that several years — his last years — are totally missing, as if flushed down a memory hole.

What TV viewers see is a closed loop of familiar file footage: King battling desegregation in Birmingham (1963); reciting his dream of racial harmony at the rally in Washington (1963); marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama (1965); and finally, lying dead on the motel balcony in Memphis (1968).

An alert viewer might notice that the chronology jumps from 1965 to 1968. Yet King didn’t take a sabbatical near the end of his life. In fact, he was speaking and organizing as diligently as ever.

Almost all of those speeches were filmed or taped. But they’re not shown today on TV.

Why?

It’s because national news media have never come to terms with what Martin Luther King Jr. stood for during his final years.

In the early 1960s, when King focused his challenge on legalized racial discrimination in the South, most major media were his allies. Network TV and national publications graphically showed the police dogs and bullwhips and cattle prods used against Southern blacks who sought the right to vote or to eat at a public lunch counter.

But after passage of civil rights acts in 1964 and 1965, King began challenging the nation’s fundamental priorities. He maintained that civil rights laws were empty without “human rights” — including economic rights. For people too poor to eat at a restaurant or afford a decent home, King said, anti-discrimination laws were hollow.

Noting that a majority of Americans below the poverty line were white, King developed a class perspective. He decried the huge income gaps between rich and poor, and called for “radical changes in the structure of our society” to redistribute wealth and power.

“True compassion,” King declared, “is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

By 1967, King had also become the country’s most prominent opponent of the Vietnam War, and a staunch critic of overall U.S. foreign policy, which he deemed militaristic. In his “Beyond Vietnam” speech delivered at New York’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 — a year to the day before he was murdered — King called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” (Full text/audio here, and also see below for the audio).

From Vietnam to South Africa to Latin America, King said, the U.S. was “on the wrong side of a world revolution.” King questioned “our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America,” and asked why the U.S. was suppressing revolutions “of the shirtless and barefoot people” in the Third World, instead of supporting them.

In foreign policy, King also offered an economic critique, complaining about “capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries.”

You haven’t heard the “Beyond Vietnam” speech on network news retrospectives, but national media heard it loud and clear back in 1967 — and loudly denounced it. Time magazine called it “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” The Washington Post patronized that “King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.”

In his last months, King was organizing the most militant project of his life: the Poor People’s Campaign. He crisscrossed the country to assemble “a multiracial army of the poor” that would descend on Washington — engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience at the Capitol, if need be — until Congress enacted a poor people’s bill of rights. Reader’s Digest warned of an “insurrection.”

King’s economic bill of rights called for massive government jobs programs to rebuild America’s cities. He saw a crying need to confront a Congress that had demonstrated its “hostility to the poor” — appropriating “military funds with alacrity and generosity,” but providing “poverty funds with miserliness.”

How familiar that sounds today, over 40 years after King’s efforts on behalf of the poor people’s mobilization were cut short by an assassin’s bullet.

In 2011, in this nation of immense wealth, the White House and most in Congress continue to accept the perpetuation of poverty. They fund foreign wars with “alacrity and generosity,” while being miserly in dispensing funds for education and healthcare and environmental cleanup.

And those priorities are largely unquestioned by mainstream media. No surprise that they tell us so little about the last years of Martin Luther King’s life.

***

Below is a video made by AFSCME, comparing Dr. King’s legacy with today’s problems, and below that I’ve posted the audio tapes of the “Beyond Vietnam” speech, mentioned above, that Dr. King delivered in New York on April 4, 1967:

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

25 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Allison Lee-Clay wrote:

    Amazingly, I’m in Atlanta & didn’t hear *anything* about commemorative public events

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Shahin Khalisdar wrote:

    My dear, our Government is in fear of shutting down and you are thinking of revolution. WOW.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Waddlesworth Lumplevin wrote:

    Screw the damn taxpayers!!!! I am for the people!!!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Barbi Montano wrote:

    I didnt hear about anything either?

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Joe Anbody wrote:

    Portland Oregon – Keep The Dream Alive http://portland.indymedia.org/en/2011/04/407583.shtml

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” — That’s a beautiful quote…good advice :)

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi, that quote is so good that I was going to use it as a dedication at the start of the article. So glad you picked up on it!

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Alison and Barbi (and others who were bypassed by this day of action):

    There was almost no coverage in the mainstream media (what a surprise!), although the following appeared in the New York Times:

    Unions Rally, Linking Their Cause to Dr. King
    Steven Greenhouse, The New York Times, April 4, 2011

    Labor unions and civil rights groups held hundreds of rallies and teach-ins on Monday to defend collective bargaining and to tie it to the cause the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was fighting for in the days before his death exactly 43 years ago.

    The sponsors of the “We Are One” rallies, held in all 50 states, repeatedly noted that when Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, he was planning to march with 1,300 striking sanitation workers.

    The rallies and 175 teach-ins were organized largely to protest the Republican-led efforts in Wisconsin and Ohio to curb bargaining for public employees. The rallies sought to build on the union protests in those states and to warn labor’s adversaries in state capitals and Washington that unions remain an important force. The rallies’ sponsors also said they wanted to protest federal and state budget cuts that they said were hurting the most vulnerable Americans.

    “What we are witnessing is nothing but an ideological assault on Dr. King’s vision for a more economically just nation,” said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

    Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America, said several million workers were going to stop business as usual at work or after work to join vigils, community rallies or marches at statehouses.

    “We’re putting all employers and all elected officials on notice that we’re mobilizing as we haven’t in decades,” Mr. Cohen said.

    Wisconsin and Ohio have enacted legislation to severely limit collective bargaining for public-sector workers, saying that was needed to help balance their budgets and rein in what they said were overly generous benefits. Richard Trumka, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s president, said, “The immense activity this week is a direct result of the backlash provoked by overreaching governors and legislators.”

    On Monday, several thousand labor supporters rallied in the rain in Memphis, many carrying “I Am a Man” placards like those the sanitation strikers carried in 1968. In Madison, Wis., a “Memphis to Madison Rally” ended with a candlelight vigil.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Frank LeFever wrote:

    shared

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Maria Allison wrote:

    Shared dugg and tweeted. I’m not surprised that the main stream media didn’t cover it. No funny hats, no crazies, just ordinary people wanting a voice.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Maria.
    And don’t forget that these ordinary people also want to hold onto what they’ve got in the face of the rich trying to impoverish them — especially because, unlike Tea Party supporters, they’ve refused to buy into a crackpot agenda that actually contributes to their own annihilation!
    Welcome to the fear of “socialism” in 2011: uppity workers who want to stay solvent while ever more cynical lawmakers insist that it is the workers — rather than their own corruption — that has led to budgetary problems.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Joan Stallard wrote:

    In DC it was well covered by TV and print. BUT I haven’t seen it published. The pundits and talking heads know we’re constantly out there in one coalition or another because I see them. It’s time to take it up a couple of notches and regularly storm the halls of Congress in volume and mass.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, Joan! And personally I do think workers and unions will continue to make more noise until the establishment — including the mainstream media — pays attention.
    I also think that, if Republicans really do push ahead with a federal shutdown, it will only hurt them, and provide more support for ordinary working people.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Eugene Hernandez wrote:

    Organized labor should be organizing for a general strike of the entire nation to show wall street our strength in this class war. They should also unite with the Latino Community on its MayDay marches

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, Eugene! That would be excellent, and I very much hope that it’s being planned. As Tunisia and Egypt should have shown us — and as Madison, Wisconsin should have shown us as well — the important thing is not just to take to the streets, but to stay there!
    When there are too many of us, the powers-that-be really can’t do anything, unless they’re prepared to show themselves openly as the most repressive sort of police state …

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    San Fernando Valley Greens wrote:

    I agree

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    David G. McGrady wrote:

    Lets hope so. Otherwise the working class, seniors and poor are doomed to enslavement and worse.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Mary Neal wrote:

    THEY are ONE, also. Rev. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, defending workers’ rights. He was killed after he began speaking against the Viet Nam War. War is profitable to prison owners and investors. There is a close connection between the prison industrial complex, war, and Americans’ job losses. Prison laborers make 100% of military uniforms, tents, and other essentials. I have found that if one sues lawyers who have been hired to defraud clients to protect the prison industrial complex, or if one protests the privatization of prisons, outsourcing American jobs, or if one speaks out against war, major investors in all of those industries combine their strength to censor, persecute, and terrorize the protester, because THEY are ONE.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Mary. I hadn’t realized the extent of those connections between prison and war — the fact that prisoners make all military uniforms and tents. That’s genuinely disturbing. Nevertheless, although THEY may indeed be ONE, I think there’s more power to the workers’ adoption of the campaigning slogan, “WE ARE ONE.”

    I must admit, I’ve also been unable to stop thinking about Faithless, and their anthem, “We Come 1,” which makes a powerful campaigning song.
    Official video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65EfTFUFDwI
    Live at Pinkpop 2002: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DRbXqpTksFY

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Meenakshi Sharma wrote:

    Thanks Andy for the post. I did not know any thing about “We are One” before this and I see they had a march at Peach Arch in Washington.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Meenakshi. More confirmation that union activity has generally slipped off — or been dropped from — the mainstream media’s radar.
    I must admit that when I looked at the people marching — and then looked at the sort of people who work in the mainstream media — I thought they were miles apart socially, and that, sadly, the kind of people seeking careers in the media generally are not motivated by a desire to address the political imbalances in society and wouldn’t even think about how people survive in a less privileged economic environment than them — which is just another sad sign of how things have slipped since the 1970s and the early 80s, when political awareness, thinking about the plight of the underdog and nurturing a deep critique of society was commonplace, and before Thatcher and Reagan’s new model of society took effect, as a return to dog-eat-dog capitalism but with added banking deregulation and the selling off of national assets.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Celina Mansour wrote:

    they just pretend to tell us the truth but it is just fiction

  24. Jenni Dye says...

    Andy -

    First of all, thanks so much for your contribution to making people’s voices heard around the world on what is such an important fight. My apologies for not picking up on it sooner.

    Secondly, I actually completely agree with you that this is perhaps a sign of things to come. However, I don’t expect to personally see the start of a movement like this again in my lifetime. I don’t think that means that people won’t continue to fight on. And I certainly hope they do.

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Jenni. Thanks for dropping by.

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