Dinesh Ramde, who covers Wisconsin news for the Associated Press, decided for some reason that it was time to write a story about the Solidarity Sing Along, the weekday singing protest that has been going on at the Wisconsin Capitol since March, 2011.
The story has been published in numerous outlets with varying reactions, from hate-filled conspiracy theories in the comment section of the online version of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, to mostly "attaboys" from Huffington Post readers. My favorite is the MJS commenter who insists he personally witnessed the singers grabbing school children and forcing them to sing along.
Mr. Ramde is quite frank that, despite his conversations with some of the participants of the Sing Along, he has no idea what their motivations are. It's refreshing to read a piece where an AP reporter repeatedly admits he has no understanding of the people he's writing about, but unfortunately that doesn't stop him from repeating rumors and outright falsehoods perpetuated by member's of Governor Scott Walker's administration.
That's not necessarily a bad thing for the singers. Whenever an article like this appears, attendance at the Sing Along goes up.
Follow me over the leftover Thanksgiving stuffing to read my list of errors and mischaracterizations I found while perusing Mr. Ramde's confusing attempt to explain the Solidarity Sing Along.
Madison - Every weekday as the clock strikes noon, dozens of demonstrators pass out songbooks inside the Wisconsin Capitol. Office workers who know what's coming scramble to close their doors, and several police officers take up watch from a distance.Error 1: Songbooks are not handed out by dozens of demonstrators. Someone brings a bag of books and people who want one take one from the bag. Occasionally someone will politely offer a book to any onlookers who look like they might be interested in singing along.
Error 2: The Sing Along is not inside the rotunda every weekday. Often it is held outside, including most Fridays and whenever there is a permitted event inside the building.
Mischaracterization 1: While it's true that several Capitol Police officers take up watch from a distance, they only started doing that after David Erwin was appointed as the new Capitol Police Chief recently. There is no need for them to stand around and watch other than to try to look intimidating. It doesn't work.
Most of the protesters who hounded Gov. Scott Walker for his collective-bargaining law got on with their lives long ago. But one group still gathers every day to needle the state's leading Republican....Mischaracterization 2: There are 48 songs in the current Solidarity Sing Along. Most of them do not mention Scott Walker. The Sing Along repertoire revolves around 3 general themes: economic justice, civil rights, and labor rights. Mentions of Scott Walker are incidental for the most part.
"We're not just protesting," said Brandon Barwick, a 28-year-old student and musician who is the unofficial leader of the singalong. "We're advocating for a way of governing, a way of living that preserves our freedoms, our rights."Mischaracterization 3: A good quote from Mr. Barwick, but there are no leaders of the Sing Along, official or unofficial. That is a designation bestowed by lazy reporters and politicians who can’t grasp the concept of a leaderless movement. Mr. Barwick helps administer a Solidarity Sing Along facebook page, sometimes brings song books to the Capitol, and often conducts songs, but he will be the first to tell anyone that there is no leader of the Sing Along.
But the Solidarity Singers won't accept defeat.
Error 3: There is no group called the Solidarity Singers. There is no roster, no meetings, no leaders, no dues. There is a daily event called the Solidarity Sing Along that happens if people show up and sing. That’s it.
Mischaracterization 4: People who participate in the Sing Along do accept the results of the recall election. Walker won. That doesn’t change the fact that many people feel the need for a permanent presence in the Capitol to highlight what Walker and the Republican legislature are doing to the state. Act 10 has been declared unconstitutional, as has Wisconsin's new Voter ID law. A John Doe investigation recently exposed that Scott Walker was aware of illegal activity going on in his office when he was the Milwaukee County Executive. There are plenty of reasons to keep singing.
Protests generally persist only as long as there's a chance to bring change. It can be hard to sustain that energy when there's no clear goal or realistic chance of success. That's what happened with the Occupy movement, which grew out of anger at Wall Street and a financial system perceived to favor the richest 1%. The movement grew too large too quickly for organizers to keep up. Without leaders or specific demands, it eroded into an amorphous protest against everything wrong with the world and eventually fell apart.Error 4: Neither the Occupy movement nor the Solidarity Sing Along have fallen apart. Media organizations like the Associated Press simply wax and wane in their coverage of both movements.
State Sen. Fred Risser, the nation's longest-serving state lawmaker, is no stranger to protests.... The confrontations of the past make him grateful that the Solidarity Singers are nonviolent. But he doubted their singing would make a difference.Error 5: Fred Risser did not say the Sing Along wouldn’t make a difference, he said it would not change the minds of certain legislators. Here is the entire quote: "I don't know of any legislators who are changing their views because of that," Risser said. "If their goal is to change the law, that's not going to happen. But I think their goal is to express concern, to have the feeling of participating in peaceful demonstrations." Sen.Risser has always been supportive of the Sing Along and has even participated more than once.
Police initially reacted with a hands-off approach, arresting only a handful of belligerent protesters loosely associated with the group. However, the new Capitol police chief has begun cracking down by issuing scores of citations to group leaders, largely for failure to obtain a permit.Mischaracterization 5: There is no belligerent wing of the Solidarity Sing Along. The Sing Along has been 100% peaceful. There are no “loose associations” other than someone being in the Capitol at the same time as the Sing Along.
Error 6: Again, there are no group leaders. Capitol Police have issued citations to people they have decided are group leaders, and to people who have participated only occasionally. To date, none of the “crack down” citations have been successfully prosecuted.
Some people who work in the Capitol call the singing an unwelcome distraction that can be heard even through a closed door.
Mischaracterization 6: Some people do close their doors, but some who work in the Capitol open their doors and quetly give thumbs up to the Solidarity Sing Along participants.
And some protesters with loose ties to the singing circle have been arrested for screaming at employees. One protester regularly stood outside the Capitol press room, berating reporters and shouting insults about one reporter's recently deceased father.
Mischaracterization 7: The Solidarity Sing Along participants do not police the Capitol. They are not responsible for the behavior of every person who comes in to protest, like the former state representative who disrupted the singers by running over their feet with his wheelchair while yelling at them. They are not responsible for one state employee’s unprovoked attack on a woman holding a heart-shaped balloon by stabbing at the balloon with a knife, cutting himself in the process. They are not responsible for the counter-protester who often interrupts school tours by yelling at the children about President Obama being a socialist. There are hundreds of people walking in and out of the Capitol every day. There is no logical reason to connect any of them to the Solidarity Sing Along unless they are in the circle singing.
But Republican state Rep. Stephen Nass of Whitewater said the singers have worn out their welcome with the endless noise. "They come in and take over the rotunda and argue that it's free speech," he said. "But when they're disrupting visitors and school groups, that's not free speech. They should have to adhere to the same rules as everyone else."Error 7: The Solidarity Sing Along does not take over the rotunda. The Sing Along moves outside whenever there is a permitted event in the Capitol. When they are inside, the Sing Along participants go out of their way to keep entrances and corridors unblocked. Visitors and school groups walk through the middle of the rotunda without being accosted.
Mischaracterization 8: Free speech rights apply to unwelcome speech. The state Constitution and settled state law have established that the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda is a “public square” where citizens have the right to peaceably assemble and petition their government. That right “shall never be abridged” says Article 1, Section 4. It does not require that citizens be welcomed by any elected representatives. In fact, that section is there to protect speech that politicians like Nass don't want to hear. That's the point.