Editor's note 9/20/2011: For those who would like to see and hear many of the speeches that I mention, they can now be found in their entirety at on the earth productions.
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Though I was working at the Cap Times when John Nichols, Ed Garvey and Dave Zweifel put together the first Fighting Bob Fest at the Sauk County Fairgrounds, I have to admit this is the first one that I have actually attended — the tenth annual gathering! It definitely won't be the last. For those who could not attend this Progressive chautauqua in person, for those who are just curious and for Progessives in other locations who need a bit of a boost, here's our report.
Friday night's Kickoff began with the Firefighter's Local 113 bagpipe and drum corps marching into the full house at the Barrymore followed by Vermont's independent, incredible Senator Bernie Sanders. There is nothing quite like the Barrymore Theater packed to the rafters with rabble rousers listening to old-time political speechifying. But unlike most events of this kind, this one began with Daniel Kunene reading his political poems to a rapt audience. Since Nichols was involved, it's not all that surprising as he is one of the few political writers I know who often begins a piece with a poem.
Saturday's all-day session at the Coliseum was less intimate but equally funky, beginning with the Forward Marching Band of ragtag musicians. Funny, friendly and family-oriented the way so much of this political season has been.
As with the protests up at the State Capitol last winter, the crowd at BobFest was made up of all kinds of citizens, of all ages and backgrounds — all of them intent on the messages of the speakers.
The opening act was Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, an organization dedicated to putting people ahead of money in politics. McCabe looks like a choir boy but he's not afraid to take on the big boys and he doesn't mince words. He offered an excellent bit of history on why the 1911 Wisconsin legislature was able to introduce and pass so much progressive legislation. It began in the late 19th century when Wisconsin outlawed bribery! Our first order of business today, says McCabe, must be to tackle money in politics and to "re-criminalize bribery."
The day began and ended with music along with singing breaks of a partisan nature. Here the Raging Grannies perform . . .
to a very appreciative audience!
Our little BobFest group: our friend Janice whose drum is an autograph book of the Fab 14, the mayor, Garvey and all our local heroes; I'm in the middle, followed by Jennifer — all three of us connected via gardening and politics!
The logistical genius behind BobFest, Lily Johnson, speaks with Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Wisconsin Firefighters Union. In another life this guy would've been a preacher. In fact, he told the assembled citizens that he understood that events like BobFest are sometimes characterized as "preaching to the choir. True, I'm preaching," he said. "You're the choir, but . . . now you have to go out and sing!" You can see him in action on the Capital Square here.
Dr. Cornell West, author, activist and Princeton University professor, gets us off to a rousing start after lunch. His presentation was short, sassy, and memorable — for his dynamic presence as much as his words.
BBC investigative journalist and best-selling author Greg Palast looks like he stepped out of The Front Page with his suit and fedora. His stories of wrong-doing in high places are spellbinding as much for his delivery as for the facts.
The "outer ring" of the Coliseum auditorium was filled on two floors with food vendors, good coffee, local businesses like Rainbow Bookstore and every activist organization you can name. Also lots of "Solidarity Bling" as one vendor categorized their merchandise!
I ran into John "Sly" Sylvester (left) of WTDY radio and Matt Rothschild of The Progressive magazine which the La Follettes started in 1909. I wanted to know how we go from a couple of folks being arrested at the Capitol to mass arrests. My husband was rather taken aback by my question and its implications.
Ed Garvey introduces our former county exec Kathleen Falk — who will in turn introduce Bernie Sanders. Falk said the Vermont Senator was like Madonna and Oprah and Cher; so well known that one name — Bernie — is the only reference he needs!
Sanders was the keynote speaker for the day and gave an impassioned speech that drew many listeners to their feet during his presentation. But he got a spontaneous, sustained standing ovation from the entire crowd when he called for universal health care. Sanders ended by saying that he knows we are angry, frustrated, depressed about events. But he emphasized that "despair is not an option." He sees the battles that began in Wisconsin, and that have spread elsewhere, as critical to the survival of the U.S as a democracy.
The Dane County Veterans Memorial Coliseum holds about 8,000 people and they were all over the place — high and low — finding their preferred listening post.
The last speaker of the day was author and radio commentator Jim Hightower who was well-worth the wait. Hightower manages to impart a lot of serious information with more than a dash of levity. As a Texan he was able to give us the lowdown on their governor, Rick Perry: "Like George W. Bush without the intellect." Here he holds up a photo he took of a business he saw while driving through Maine. The name of the biz? "Perry's Nut House: Nuts. Curiosities. Fudge."
Hightower emphasized we should be proud to be called "agitators." After all, he said, an agitator is the central post in a washing machine that gets the dirt out! As so many of the BobFest speakers noted, there is no one who is going to make the changes we want to see happen. Not Congress. Not Obama. Not our state government. "It's up to us," Hightower said, "It's always been up to us." He then pointed out that the slogan of his favorite Texas hardware store was perfect for our time: "Together, we can build it yourself."
By the end of the day, it was clear to all those at Fighting Bob Fest, that together, we can do it ourselves!
We stayed after all the speakers were finished to hear more music and drink a beer. How could I leave when the last folks to appear on stage were the guys I still love and went to see every time they played in Madison back in the day: The Piper Road String Band.
And to my former roomie Mary R. in Sheboygan, let me say they were as good as ever; they played "Kettle Morraine" and the clogging couple showed up and danced. Whoa, Nellie! 1979 all over again!