There’s a downside to John Nichols’ book Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street (2012). It’s basic, a record of recent events and an amplification of news stories and essays that Nichols published as a political writer for the Nation magazine and as an editor of the Capital Times. It’s lock step with the progressive’s agenda, as it chases themes from 1776 to present and then zooms in on the Madison protests from February through April, 2011.
But there’s also a compelling upside to Uprising. Nichols’s gaze is on the rising tide, a movement washing across this country from Wisconsin to Wall Street. People are enraged; Nichols “gets it,” and his message is electric.
If you were in Madison, checking Facebook’s “Shit Scott Walker Is Doing to My State,” shouting “This Is What Democracy Looks Like,” “Kill the Bill,” “Union Busting,” “Recall Walker,” and joining the “jump around” at the capitol building, then you’ll recognize yourself in Nichols’ story.You may even spot one of your signs, for signs and slogans are threads in Nichols’ freedom tapestry. As guitarist Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine put it in Patrick Doyle’s article in Rolling Stone, Walker’s “legislation would rob us of decades, centuries of social progress.”
From the start, Walker seemed to have missed the meaning. It didn’t matter that neither 30,000 Wisconsinites collected recall signatures nor over a million state-wide signed the petitions. Walker read the problem as out-of-state agitators thwarting his agenda. When he donned Badger apparel for the Rose Bowl, it was obvious that he’d skipped the “Teach Me How To Bucky” video. When he decked himself in green and gold, the Green Bay Packers stood with unions. When he wanted to get to work and yet avoid protesters, he took an underground tunnel into the capitol building every day. Yet when he took a call from the Koch brothers – even from a Koch imposter – he answered the call. “Even on the day he was sworn in, Walker made it a point of being sworn in on the opposite side of the capitol from the bust of Robert M. La Follette, where previous governors…had taken their oaths,” Nichols writes. This man wanted to take Wisconsin’s history away from the very working-class people who built this state.
Why if it’s so familiar should you read the Uprising? Because Nichols doesn’t just tell you what’s happening; he tells you why it’s happening, where it’s happening—both here and across the country, how long it’s been happening, and when it started happening—as George Carlin implied in his “American Dream” routine – while we were all asleep. If you weren’t part of the “boots-on-the-ground” movement, you need to read Uprising simply to find out what all the fuss’s about. It’s history in the making, and Nichols separates fact from fiction – no small feat given that the spin machines are running rampant with misinformation, hate-speak, fear-mongering, and pandering.
America began with an uprising. Thomas Paine wrote in The Rights of Man (1791), “The shortest and most effectual remedy is to begin anew.” Today, according to Michael Moore, “People have had it.” According to Nichols, this is the fight we have been waiting for, and it could have happened anywhere. According to the May 5, 2012, issue of The New Yorker, IN THE STORM, the anti-union crusade may have backfired. Walker’s bomb was followed by an explosion. It started in Madison, Wisconsin: inspiring a nation and transforming political debates. It began the renewal – “anew.”
Nothing and no one in this fight have been minimized, from teachers and nurses, to farmers and union workers. Uprising’s symbol is the raised fist in the shape of the state of Wisconsin. “An injury to one is an injury to all.” What makes this text remarkable is Nichols’s ability to capture memories and the power of moments – the return of the fab 14 (fourteen Democratic state senators who had fled the state), the Madison firefighters marching with pipes and drums, the chants “Whose house?” “Our house.”
It’s an astonishing depiction of not only what’s happening in the streets in plain view, the calling out and exposing, but also what’s lurking behind the scenes in the dead of night, the steering, with obscene amounts of money and unbridled power – of the ship of this country – into a cesspool of greed and corruption – recently unleashed by the Supreme Court decision, Citizen’s United.
What’s now overt has been covert for thirty years, Nichols explains. The desire of the people, in the face of democracy going off the tracks, is to register their protest. Nichols’ personal nemesis is Scott Walker, and he lays out the damage done by Walker’s stripping away of collective bargaining rights of state, county, and municipal employees. He illustrates media bias by citing Fox News channel’s characterization of mass protests as “union thug” violence and Rupert Murdock’s network images of Madison in February – with palm trees in the background. He sets the record straight about “How WISCONSIN Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street,” the subtitle of his text.
Nichols confesses – it’s personal. Wisconsin is his home, and he loves it! Uprising is dedicated to Harrison Wood Nichols, “a descendant of Abnor Nichols, the Cornish tin miner who came in 1824 to mine lead in Mineral Point, Wisconsin.” In the “Foreword,” he delineates his autobiographical connections to Wisconsin. It’s paradise found, and he doesn’t want to lose it. In Chapter 1, Madison gets rowdy “On the Cold First Night of a Golden Age.” Nichols begins with UW-Madison’s teaching assistants, members of the TAA (the Teaching Assistant Association) marching. It’s “Solidarity Forever,” an uncharted uprising – and the future is now.
It’s Lévi-Strauss, in Tristes Tropiques (1955): “if men have always been concerned with only one task – how to create a society fit to live in – the forces which inspired our distant ancestors are also present in us. Nothing is settled; everything can still be altered. What was done but turned out wrong, can be done again. The Golden Age, which blind superstition had placed behind or ahead of us, is in us.” An organizing that began over a century ago with the work of Robert La Follette’s progressives and Milwaukee’s muscular Socialist Party begins again.
Chapter 2 makes connections between James Madison giving patriots the rights they needed to challenge despotism and descendants in Madison, Wisconsin, in 2011. Chapter 3 picks up two themes – the arc of history and the sense of place shaping a struggle and a future. Madison was the wrong city, Wisconsin the wrong state, for the Walker entourage to pick on. Pushed too far – they’re pushing back. In Chapter 4, Nichols clarifies mystiques – “Wisconsin Is Not Broke, America Is Not Broke,” and trickle down doesn’t work. Whereas Chapter 5 takes on the media, Chapter 6 unpacks “the rise of the house of labor.”
In his “Afterword,” Nichols brings his argument back to Thomas Paine and “The governing rule of right and mutual good [which] must in all cases prevail.” The power [which is at hand] is to begin the world over again. “The new protest movements of 2011, of 2012, and beyond [Nichols reminds us] are the most patriotic thing to come out of the precincts around Wall Street in 222 years.” Nichols assures us that against all odds we can overcome. “MAKE NO MISTAKE [he says]. What is often referred to simply as ‘Wisconsin’ has spread. And it will continue to spread if activists in other states go to their own histories for inspiration.”