Unbowed by defeat at the polls and shaken but not swayed by curbs on collective bargaining rights and other principles they hold dear, Wisconsin progressives Saturday vowed to retrench, regroup and fight back — because the people of the state side with them, they said.
"We are down right now," said Mahlon Mitchen, a Madison firefighter and fire- fighters union president.
"We didn't start this fight," he added. "But if they want a fight, we will bring it to them. I guarantee you we'll prevail."
"This has been a tough year, in Wisconsin and in the country," echoed state Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, in his remarks to the crowd of several thousand at the 10th annual Fighting Bob Fest. "But not all is bleak. The people are with us. Too many are hurting."
The daylong festival, moved this year from outdoors in Baraboo to inside at the Dane County Coliseum, was started in 2002 by a small group of activists who stopped a proposed bottled water plant in central Wisconsin.
The festival's themes since then have broadened from environmental concerns to other ills that progressives see as threatening representative democracy. Targets include what they say is corporate over-influence, lack of universal health care, excessive money in politics and the destruction of social safety nets for the poor and middle class.
One speaker whose remarks encompassed all those topics while palpably energizing the crowd was civil rights advocate and Princeton University professor Cornel West, who was introduced by Pocan.
Appearing in his signature three-piece black suit, West stormed the speaker's podium, delivering a fiery and impassioned 15-minute address in rapid-fire style with no notes. He roused participants to periodic cheers and received a standing ovation from many in the coliseum at the end — despite, as he said, having the flu.
"I couldn't miss being here, because you're doing the right thing," he said.
Drawing parallels to the toppling of the apartheid regime in South Africa and recent uprisings of democracy advocates against repressive governments in Egypt and Tunisia, West exhorted attendees to reclaim power from the "oligarchs and plutocrats" who he said enjoy "disproportionate rule in America."
"We're going to straighten our backs up, too," West said. "We are one people."
Named after Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette, a former governor and U.S. senator from Wisconsin who died in 1925, the festival echoes La Follette's focus on increasing the role of ordinary citizens in government. Its sponsors are The Capital Times and FightingBob.com, and its theme this year was "Class Warfare: Fight Back."
The emphasis on the defensive is no accident. Progressives are reeling from a series of blows to their agenda in the past year, starting with the election of Republican Gov. Scott Walker in November.
Walker's measure to weaken public unions, pushed through by Republican majorities in the state Senate and Assembly, was another defeat, followed by cuts to education, health care and programs for the poor to help balance the current state budget.
Walker's refusal to raise taxes, his changes to environmental regulations and his tax breaks for businesses, all approved by the GOP Legislature, further deepened divisions.
But speakers and attendees Saturday denied that the mood was gloomier this year. If anything, they said, the recent setbacks have energized participants to work together more and take the ideological battle more seriously.
"The powerful lesson from this year is we must stick together," said Joe Parisi, Dane County executive and a Democrat, in his remarks to attendees.
Outside the speakers' hall, festival participants could mill around, chat in small groups and connect with fellow activists seeking support for different causes and groups, such as the Wisconsin Green Party, Veterans for Peace, the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice, ProRail and the Sierra Club.
At a booth selling "Fighting Bob" memorabilia such as T-shirts, hats and coffee cups — the proceeds from which help fund the free festival — volunteer Martha Noonan Johnson of Walworth shrugged off the spate of recent troubles.
"Life's a constant struggle," she said. "I think it's exhilarating."
Attendee Deb Martinelli, who stopped by the booth for Progressive Democrats of America to pick up a sticker supporting "Health Care, Not Warfare," said she came to this year's Bob Fest for encouragement and to express solidarity.
"I think democracy is in danger, and I want to support events like this and hear what the leaders have to say," said Martinelli, a Middleton resident. "Maybe I'll come away with some renewed hope about the recall of Walker."