If you want to watch a great film about people coming together for a common cause, watch We Are Wisconsin, director Amie Williams’ electrically-charged documentary about the February-March 2011 events in Wisconsin. You know what happened there: Republican Governor Scott Walker‘s bill threatened to wipe away worker rights and muzzle public debate.
I saw We Are Wisconsin at the Traverse City Film Festival this summer, and it’s not only a deep testament to the power of passionate people, but it gives you hope that people really CAN make a difference when so many forces in the world tell us we can’t.
After watching We Are Wisconsin, you too will say, yes, we can make a difference! Just watch us!
The film follows six extraordinary citizens who force their way into the Wisconsin State Capital and spend the next 26 days building a movement that not only challenges the controversial budget-repair bill, but also bonds like-minded folks around the country in a political movement to rival no other in American history. They are…
Kylie Christenson, a 21-year old UW-Madison senior from a tiny rural Wisconsin town. She’s a labor history major who skipped classes in order to witness firsthand contemporary labor history in the making. Kylie is also from a union family, and eventually takes a job as a union organizer the summer after she occupied the Capitol.
Rachel Friedman, a 44-year-old social worker. Her grandfather was a union member in Ohio, and his house was firebombed when he went on strike in support of his steelworker local. Rachel felt compelled to protest and “speak out for those who can’t” when she realized none of her patients fully understood what the cuts would mean to them. She is also mom to a 7-year old girl, who she brought to the Capitol on many occasions, using events as a living history lesson.
Brian Austin, a Madison police officer who by day would suit up to guard the Capitol, but then started the Cops For Labor brigade. He is new to political protest and began sleeping inside the Capitol because of the overwhelming response he got from other protesters who felt “safe” knowing there were cops on their side. His wife Melissa supports him and documented many of his speeches on her digital video camera.
Candice Owley, a 63-year old nurse who drove in from Milwaukee, providing much needed medical care to the people sleeping inside the Capitol and those marching outside, due to close quarters and inclement weather. She has a grandmotherly-like nature but is tough-as-nails, having watched public health care deteriorate over time. Her personal turning point came when, negotiating a contract several years ago that would increase pension plans for nurses, a hospital administrator told her that nurses should just “marry better.”
Laura Glass, a high school teacher from Madison, who joined her co-workers every day after teaching, marching around the Capitol. A single woman, she would sit beneath the “Miss Forward” bronze monument to the Suffragist Movement of Wisconsin, a statue that symbolized for her the gender-specific attack Walker’s proposed bill would have and how countless nurses, teachers, social workers, and secretaries, mostly women, would be impacted.
Mark Roughen, an IBEW electrician who used his contacts inside the Capitol building to jerry-rig a live web stream of events. Mark was one of several electricians who rewired the Capitol several years ago, so he knew the wiring system intimately. He was able to get a permit in the early days of the protest to set up a live “Ustream” inside, but was later shut down by the Capitol Press. He literally fought for his right to “electrical power” seeing it as a metaphor for political power.
At its heart, this is a story about average Americans who hold very precious their rights as Americans, and how they discover just how critical their role in protecting these rights is. As UW-Madison graduate student leader Peter Rickman put it:
“We proved that democracy is alive and well; the fight for social, economic and political democracy goes on stronger and more vibrant than ever. What happened in Wisconsin will be understood as a pulse of the people on where we all are. Do we countenance attacks on workers rights and unions? Do we accept austerity and a declining standard of living for all?”
More than one million signatures for the recall of Governor Walker were collected, all by voluntary activists which included public and private sector unionists, and members of community-based organizations that grew out of the Capitol Uprising.
Director Amie Williams: What It Means to Be From Wisconsin
“I just came back from my tenth day of filming at the Madison State Capitol, where tonight, March 10, 2011, I witnessed the passing of the SS-SB/AB11 Budget Adjustment Bill by a handful of dismissive legislators, the ultimate affront to the thousands of protesters that have been encamped at the Capitol for weeks. I am writing this on the dining room table of a woman I met the very first day I landed in Madison, a public-employee social worker, Rachel Friedman, who has just clarified for me what this is all about: ordinary people finally realizing that they don’t have to be extraordinary to make a difference. That is, they don’t need an institution, a television station, or a corporation behind them to matter. All they need is their voice, and in Rachel’s case, some strong cold medicine, to be heard.
“I was raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin but have been away for over 25 years. Although I have traveled the world making documentary films and reporting on issues related to human rights, I have to say I have never experienced the passion and power I felt when I first stepped into the Madison rotunda, surrounded by thousands of fellow Wisconsinites who welcomed me with open arms. Over the past few weeks I have come to reclaim my “Badger heart,” and never have I felt so proud of my heritage.
“I want to talk about what it means to be from Wisconsin, the granddaughter of a school teacher, the great-grand-daughter of a miner and a farmer. I want to tell you about the ordinary Wisconsin citizens I met inside and outside the Wisconsin Capitol building, and on the streets of Madison — in coffee shops, taverns, grocery stores and hotel conference rooms. The teachers, and children of teachers, the nurses, the farmers, the students, the snowplow drivers, the grandmothers and aunts, the small business owners and the union leaders, the janitors, the kids in strollers, all the every-day people that descended on the Capitol to protest Governor Walker’s bill, a gathering of an America we all know, but may have forgotten to listen to.
“As I was jostled about by cameramen (and a few women) to get “the story” of Wisconsin, told repeatedly by the Assemblymen, the Senators, union leaders, TV anchors, political pundits and freshly flown-in celebs like Bradley Whitford, Michael Moore, Tony Shalhoub, and Susan Sarandon, I kept feeling the story was elsewhere. It was in the small snippets of dialogue I would overhear inside the Rotunda. It was in the handing out of home-made brownies, the bedtime story a teacher told her 3-yearold while tucking him into a sleeping bag underneath a Capitol alcove. The story is in the chalk drawings of the young girl I saw who drew an outline of her mother’s body outside the capitol, and then wrote inside: “I love my Mom, Gov. Walker, do you?”
“Much of our collective history has been recorded and told by those with authority, power and access. At the heart of the Wisconsin story is just the opposite, where so many random, ordinary voices sparked a chorus which then grew to a deafening “on-the-commons” cavalry of ordinary, every-day folks bonding together to redefine and reshape the story of who we are as Americans … where we come from, and why it’s so important not to forget.
“I’ve told many friends that making this film was like a love letter to democracy … to the Wisconsin I knew as a child, where growing up a “purple baby” (father a Republican and mother a Democrat) meant that I lived daily the dialectic … I learned how to both stand my ground and respect the other side.
“While I feel I am uniquely positioned to tell this story, I also want to be cautious. I didn’t want to make a film that panders to partisan politics, but rather explores the personal stories, motivations, fears, and self-discovery behind what happened in Wisconsin.
“This I believe was my main challenge, and the beauty and core of the story — that which transcends difference and ultimately bridges the divides. Given that this is a foundational election year and the political arena has become so acrimonious with accusations, alienation and special interests, I hope my film can contribute in some way to a healing of sorts, a film that sparks dialogue and action.
“Wisconsin has turned into a place where politics is not a bloody mess … it matters to the lives of everyday people. We fish through ice; we make democratic political history. Wisconsin proved to me that democracy is alive and well; the fight for social, economic and political democracy goes on stronger and more vibrant than ever.”