What happens when a governor tries to fix a small leak in the roof by burning the entire house down?
Amie Williams’ documentary We Are Wisconsin! takes the viewer on a short path down memory lane, specifically to the 2011 Wisconsin protests held against Governor Scott Walker’s controversial budget repair bill. Less than six weeks into his term, he introduced senate bill SB 11, which included policies eliminating public employee contracts in the name of fiscal responsibility, ending a fifty year Wisconsin tradition of collective bargaining. Major cuts to wages and benefits from public employees were also planned.
The cameras follow six individual men and women who embarked on this historic protest: a nurse, a union electrician, a university student, a county social worker, a high-school teacher and a police officer whose union was actually exempt from SB 11.
The viewer is invited to step into the workplace of various Wisconsin protesters. These poignant scenes are but a glimpse of the time, sacrifice and energy routinely spent at their jobs. In effect, these scenes underline the fact that a termination of collective bargaining rights not only affects unionized, public sector workers, it also affects the people they’re meant to serve.
“The state is broke,” Walker kept repeating at the time, despite the fact that a non-partisan group cited a budget surplus for 2010-2011. By attempting to break the various unions, Walker would be leaving workers vulnerable while also stripping away many of their rights in the workforce. However, much to his dismay, the public reaction in Wisconsin was swift and moral outrage was in the air.
What began as an outcry by a few hundred protesters in the state capital of Madison quickly escalated to thousands of Wisconsin residents descending upon the city. Working-class and middle-class men and women marched alongside students, eventually occupying the state Capitol building for 18 days.
As public hearings were established, a constant stream of people stood ready to testify against the proposed legislation and voice their displeasure. Among these individuals was a former union-hating elderly woman who switched her social and political allegiance after the introduction of Walker’s bill.
In the political spectrum Democrat state Senators also did their part, refusing to attend the assembly meeting needed to pass the bill, thereby delaying the vote. Dubbed the “Wisconsin 14”, they crossed state lines into Illinois.
The film also exhibits how Fox News dishonestly painted the demonstrators as an angry, violent mob. That’s when Mark Roughen, an electrician, decided to directly live-stream the protesters’ peaceful activities inside the Capitol.
In fact, there’s an inspiring scene early on in the film as we witness off-duty police officers, led by Brian Austin, entering the building carrying food and refreshments for the occupiers, while the crowd repeatedly shouts the rarest chant of all: “we love cops!”
In essence, We Are Wisconsin! reminds us that civic responsibility, essential to any democracy, doesn’t simply end at the voting booth. It pours out into the streets in droves of thousands; it not only shouts towards its representatives, it occupies their buildings. It relentlessly makes itself seen and heard with bright signs and deafening noise. It is joyful chaos otherwise known as the democratic process.
We Are Wisconsin! screens Monday, Dec. 3 at 7 p.m. in Room H-110, 1455 De Maisonneuve Blvd W.