The Art of Resistance

by Callen Harty

Living in Wisconsin and observing protest and resistance for the last several years sometimes leaves me breathless.  The other day, for example, I was at the Solidarity Sing Along at the State Capitol, a daily noontime protest in which song is joyfully used to rebel against the current state of affairs.  As the protest songs were sung by a couple dozen singers a school group entered the rotunda.  The children listened at first, then started edging closer to the singers, and were soon following along with the songbooks.  After a couple songs one boy could not contain himself any longer and moved from outside the circle into the middle of the rotunda, dancing all by himself to the boisterous singing.  He was soon joined by a friend, and then another, and soon the entire class joined together in the middle of the rotunda to sing, dance, and march around in circles.  The children borrowed protest signs and started holding them up as they sang and danced and the entire place was filled with an incredible joy.

Music and other arts can move people in ways that standard protests cannot.

Marches have their place but a single image of one protester taken by a good photographer can distill a message into its essence and touch thousands more people than could possibly see the march.  A poem, with its spare use of language, can communicate a message far more effectively than a rehashing of the same political speeches we hear over and over again.

The last couple years in Wisconsin protests have been marked not by their numbers, by violence, or anything else but by their creativity.  Each new political development brings out new signs and banners decorated by talented artists who manage to encapsulate the message within the constraints of a few words on cardboard.  The Overpass Light Brigade does the same thing with LED lights, organizing a few holders of the lights to spell out the vital messages of the day.

It is about simplicity.  Most people won’t read a 2,000 word treatise on the importance of our rights, but a photograph of an elderly woman with a sign about freedom of speech being handcuffed by police for singing will be seen and understood in a very elemental way.  It reaches right to the core of what is happening in a way that nothing else can.

It is about being able to react swiftly.  When newspapers started to report about Scott Walker’s book Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge protesters decided quickly to release their own book, Unintimidated: Wisconsin Sings Truth to Power.  It was an essay interspersed with photographs of the Capitol Police assaults and arrests of Solidarity Sing Along participants.  It was a perfect artistic response to Walker’s book, using his own title to show who was really intimidated.  It also used his title to take people to a different message and draw attention to some of the issues that led to protests against him in the first place.

It is about passion.  During the height of the Wisconsin Uprising a group organized a flash mob in the Capitol.  Thousands of people were in the building when the group started to sing “Do You Hear the People Sing” from the musical Les Miserables.  The words took on new meaning in the fight against the union-busting Wisconsin governor.  The song continued to build with more and more people joining in and when it was over the building shook from the applause and cheers.  It was one of the most magnificent moments of that whole period, fueled by the passion of song.

Art can move people.  It can stir passions.  It can move one to action.  Without art and the creativity of those still fighting the battle in Wisconsin the resistance would have died when the masses of crowds left the Capitol Square two years ago.  Instead, there are voices still being lifted, images still being captured, words still being shared that continue to speak truth to power and in that resides hope for the people to eventually prevail.