As Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the Republican-dominated legislature took their oaths of office on Tuesday promising to extend their austerity and privatization agendas, a group of young Madison activists swore oaths as leaders in the struggle for human rights and justice for the black community.
Seven members of the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition were inaugurated as “freedom fighters for the black liberation movement” in the middle of the busy downtown Madison intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Doty Street.
Taking their oaths holding classic movement writings by James Baldwin, June Jordan, Kwame Nkrumah, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, Manning Marable, Paolo Friere, and others, activists Brandi Grayson, Eric Upchurch, A'tira Banks, Jasmine Timmons, M. Adams, Matthew Braunginn, and Alix Ade Shabazz were sworn in by Rev. Everett D. Mitchell as they recited these words of Assata Shakur:
"It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and protect one another. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
The group of young activists has been leading weekly #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations and direct actions around the city since November to raise awareness of the criminalization of poverty in the black community. They are building political support for demands to end solitary confinement, stop the expansion of the Dane County Jail, reallocate $8 million that has been earmarked for a jail expansion study to community-led initiatives, and free 350 black inmates who are imprisoned for crimes of poverty.
The Young, Gifted and Black Coalition planned their rally on the Capitol steps to follow the inaugurations of the constitutional officers of the State of Wisconsin: Governor Scott Walker, Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, Attorney General Brad Schimel, and State Treasurer Matt Adamczyk.
The inauguration ceremony inside the Capitol was tightly scripted and heavily stage-managed. Dozens of uniformed and plainclothes state troopers patrolled the building, and most of the rotunda was cordoned off for the exclusive access by ticket-holders. Political speeches were interspersed with military ceremony and Christian music sung by school children.
The staging for the ceremony appeared to me more geared toward Scott Walker’s presidential bid, with an enormous, two-story high American flag as the backdrop. Walker’s remarks were geared toward a national audience, taking a pot shot at “politicians along the Potomac” and mentioning the state’s relatively good bond rating and fully funded retirement system.
Walker’s campaign fundraising machine took advantage of the occasion to put on several ticketed events ranging from a $25 pay-to-pray religious breakfast at the swank Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee the day before the inauguration, to a $30,000 “hospitality suite” package for the inaugural ball.
Walker supporters didn’t seem to grasp the irony of this kind of extravagance as they applauded his justification for slashing public health, education, and social safety net programs in the name of “true freedom and prosperity”––which, he asserts, comes from people “controlling their own lives and their own destinies through the dignity that is born from work.”
Attorney General Brad Schimel’s message to the people, especially people of color, was more direct.
“I’m putting drug smugglers and dealers on notice: You are public enemy number one,” Schimel said to the applause of the nearly all-white crowd in the Capitol. Racial disparities in the Wisconsin criminal justice system are some of the worst in the nation, and they are even more pronounced in drug arrests.
And to pile on more, Schimel signaled to activists working to stop police brutality and killings that they will find no assistance from his office. This is very much a live issue in Milwaukee, where the District Attorney last month declined to indict former Milwaukee police officer Christopher Manney for the murderer of Dontre Hamilton.
Concluding his remarks, Schimel said, “And as much as I ensure drug dealers that they are public enemy number one, I ensure our law enforcement community that they have no stronger partner than the Wisconsin Department of Justice under my leadership, and they will have my commitment that we will work together for a safe Wisconsin.”
Outside, Young Gifted and Black members, taking seriously their oath to fight for freedom, decried the state-directed violence that results from the reverse-Robin Hood policies of the Walker administration and the over-policing of black neighborhoods.
“Surviving poverty is not a crime. Poverty itself is the crime!” declared Brandi Grayson as she led a group of activists through the streets of Madison from the Capitol to the fourth floor of the City-County building, where they delivered their demands to Dane County Executive Joe Parisi and the office of Madison Mayor Paul Soglin.
After the delivery, organizers urged the crowd of several dozen supporters to attend the next meeting of the County Public Protection & Judiciary Committee to reinforce their demands. "We are in charge of creating the world we want to live in,” said M. Adams. “That is our duty."
Rebecca Kemble is a contributing writer for The Progressive.