This Week in Wisconsin History

Protests begin in Madison

By - Feb 13th, 2012 04:00 am

On February 14, 2011, University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Teaching Assistant Association led the “Don’t Break My Heart” demonstration against Gov. Scott Walker’s budget repair bill, kicking off a marathon protest that would launch Wisconsin into the national spotlight.

Labor issues are deeply rooted in Wisconsin’s history. The state emerged as a leader in labor relations when the country’s first Workers’ Compensation law was passed more than a century ago. Wisconsin also became the first to enact unemployment insurance and to provide collective bargaining rights to public employees.

“I have a feeling that Wisconsin’s heritage of granting those kinds of rights to public employees did play a vague role in the protests,” said James Marten, professor and chair of Marquette University’s history department. “The governor and legislature seemed to be turning back history, so to speak.”

UW-Madison student Ben Spoehr joined the parade of 1,000 protestors marching from the Memorial Union to the Capitol and hand-delivered a valentine to Gov. Walker’s office, asking him to not cut funding for the UW System.

“Once we arrived at the Capitol, it kind of took on a life of its own. There was a lot of excitement and a lot of energy,” he said. “Just knowing that we were literally having our voices heard within the Capitol was really empowering.”

Spoehr doesn’t consider himself an avid political protestor, but was inspired to participate to support the state’s future education system. He never anticipated that other, much larger protests would follow.

“The feeling that I got while I was there wasn’t that anyone wanted to start this huge movement. I really think it was an organic outpouring of emotion and concern,” said Spoehr. “The fact that it ended up resonating with so many people and triggering this huge movement speaks to the fact that these are issues a lot of Wisconsinites are concerned with.”

After a 17-day occupation of the Capitol and subsequent protests on the grounds, the battle over the budget repair bill came to a halt when Governor Walker signed the bill into law on March 11. The protests triggered many recall elections targeting both parties, including the likely recall against Governor Walker, which Marten cites as evidence of the “extraordinary polarization of politics in Wisconsin.”

“I think the awakening and mobilization of people for a cause they believe in is what sticks out to me as one of the most important victories of the protest,” said Spoehr.

Photo from the week of Feb. 12, 1969 during the protest. Photo from UW Digital Collection, submitted by Karin Denissen.

February 12, 1969: Governor Warren Knowles calls in 900 members of the Wisconsin National Guard to suppress an ongoing campus strike at the University of Wisconsin led by the Black People’s Alliance. The guardsmen resorted to using tear gas and fixed bayonets to clear the chaotic, but peaceful crowds of protesters. The strike started five days earlier with the central demand that the school create a black studies program, hire more black faculty, and recruit more black students.  At the time of the protest, only 500 black students were enrolled at UW-Madison.

February 13, 1904: Several boats become ensnared in ice when Lake Michigan froze over from shore to shore. Passengers aboard the Empire State steamer entertained themselves dancing, singing, playing cards, and even ice skating during the six days they were stranded.  Two car ferries were also trapped in attempts to rescue other ships offshore from Manitowoc and Kewaunee.

February 16, 1943: Milwaukee native Mildred Fish-Harnack is guillotined in Berlin for her role in leading the Red Orchestra, a Nazi resistance circle in Germany with her husband, Arvid Harnack, who was executed in December 1942.  Mildred was the only American woman executed on Adolf Hitler’s direct orders.  Her courageous efforts were commemorated in 1986 with the establishment of Mildred Fish-Harnack day, recognized in Wisconsin on September 16. (Note: Click here to visit TCD’s feature on the recent Wisconsin Public Television documentary on Mildred Fish-Harnack)

February 17, 1992: After a two-week trial, Milwaukee serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer is sentenced to 15 consecutive life terms, totaling 936 years, for the murder and dismemberment of 15 young men.

February 18, 1933: Over 2,000 dairy farmers block 30 miles of roads around New London, successfully preventing 90,000 pounds from reaching the Borden condensery. The blockade, orchestrated by the Wisconsin Cooperative Milk Pool, was part of a series of strikes and protests to drive up the dwindling prices paid to milk producers. The roads around New London were reportedly “white with milk” after the contents of several milk trucks were dumped after refusing to turn around.

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