Activists took to the streets by the thousands in Madison, Wisconsin on Wednesday with a long list of grievances — ranging from the police killing of unarmed 19-year-old Tony Robinson to the impending multi-million dollar cut to the state’s universities, which they say will “devastate Wisconsin for generations to come.”
Those organizing the action told ThinkProgress that Wisconsin’s legal assault on workers and physical assault on its residents of color are two sides of the same coin.
“The purpose of this march and this movement is connect the dots between the different forms of injustice and how it all leads back to state violence,” said Brandi Grayson with the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition. “Stripping resources from our local communities is state violence. Cutting hundreds of millions from the UW is state violence. The non-taxation of corporations and the over-taxation of the poor and middle class is state violence.”
Wisconsin already had the some of the worst racial disparities in the country when Governor Scott Walker took office, but those demonstrating say he has made the situation much worse. Soon after taking office, he defunded a program that tracked the race of people stopped by police, even though black residents of Madison’s Dane County were found to be more than 97 times more likely to go to jail for a drug crime than a white resident. Now, the Governor’s new budget proposes an $8 million jail expansion in Dane County, at the same time many social services are being eliminated.
In the days following the police killing Robinson, activists have rallied around not just holding the responsible officer accountable, but demanding a shift in priorities for the entire state.
“We are here to demand justice for Tony Robinson and all the other Tony Robinsons across the country,” Grayson said. “If we don’t ensure that the most marginalized among us has justice, the rest won’t as well. If we don’t move together as a collective, we won’t be as strong.”
Marching with them in the streets Wednesday were hundreds of local high school students, civil rights groups and labor unions — who this week suffered another in a multi-year series of major blows when Governor Walker signed a so-called “right to work” bill into law.
Some labor leaders say the failure to build these bridges in the past has hurt the labor movement and Wisconsin progressives overall, as evidenced by the passage of the 2011 law stripping public employees of the right to collectively bargain, the unsuccessful campaign to recall Governor Walker, and this week’s signing of the “right to work” law.
Michael Billeaux with the Teaching Assistants’ Association told ThinkProgress that if unions are going to have any future or meaningful impact in the state going forward, they are going to need to build these new coalitions and advocate for justice outside as well as inside the workplace.
“The success of labor is dependent on its willingness to get involved in broader political movements for working people,” he said. “The vast majority of the working class is not organized by unions, but working people are disproportionately people of color and racism and police brutality have a major impact in their lives. If the unions are going to grow and stay powerful they have to support the broader interests of working people, including the black freedom struggle.”
This week, the AFL-CIO, United Steelworkers and International Association of Machinists also sued the state, claiming the law unconstitutionally forces unions to provide benefits to workers who are not dues-paying members.
A county judge will hear arguments Thursday on whether to temporary block the law from taking effect. Soon after, the state legislature will take up the Governor’s controversial budget that cuts education funding and increases resources for prisons.
Grayson said it’s the state’s young people, who are still reeling from the loss of Robinson, who must lead.
“All the important changes that have happened have historically have come from the youth,” she said. “They have yet to be conditioned to the point of no return, and they still have hope and fire and energy. As adults, we have to provide them with the structure and information they need, but allow this movement to remain theirs.”