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New Documentary Provides Reflections on Wisconsin

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Report on film “We Are Wisconsin”, featuring Brian and Melissa Austin; active police officer and a housewife turned activist

Guest Bios:

Brian Austin is a Madison police officer who became involved very early in the protests in response to what he viewed as an assault on the rights of the people he had taken an oath to protect. As founders of the “Cops For Labor” brigade, Brian and his coworkers worked long shifts on-duty around the Capital, and would return to protest as soon as their shifts ended. Brian slept overnight inside the Capital when it appeared the Walker administration was going to forcibly clear the building and cut off access to the “Peoples’ House.” Brian felt it was extremely important for the police, given their unique role in society, to speak out against the destructive agenda of the Walker administration and the wealthy special interests fueling this attack on labor. Brian and his fellow “Cops for Labor” found that their presence provided a sense of comfort and safety to the other protesters at the Capital.

Melissa Austin was an extremely active participant in the protests and the “Cops for Labor” movement. Melissa went from being a housewife with three children to being a fullfledged activist. Melissa became very involved in the making of the documentary film “We Are Wisconsin”. She created a website, sourced music and archive images. She did so much work that she became a Associate Producer and photographer for the film. Melissa has a diverse background, with experience in law enforcement, the private sector, and non-profit foundations. In addition to a labor and human rights activist, she is currently a professional photographer and social media expert. Melissa has also spent the last 10 years raising three wonderful children.

Aime Williams graduated from UCLA’s MFA program in Film Production in 1992. Her award-winning work has focused on giving voice to the margins, while pushing filmic conventions. From labor unions to African AIDS orphans, Amie’s work drives creative ideologies shaped for a world in constant flux. Her work has broadcast on PBS, Al Jazeera English, BBC, and CBC, winning numerous awards, including the IDA David Wolper, Paul Robeson, SONY/Streisand Award for emerging female filmmakers, and the MacArthur Foundation Peace Grant. She was selected to participate in the 2007 Film Independent’s Director’s Lab for her first fiction film “JUA KALI, HARSH SUN” which she wrote, about an AIDS orphan in Kenya. This script was a finalist in the Ultimate Filmmakers Competition, sponsored by Filmmaker’s Alliance. She is the co-founder of Global Girl Media, a non-profit that trains under-served teenage girls in new media journalism, which launched during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. and


Voiceover: On June 5, Scott Walker managed to hold on to the governorship of Wisconsin. Facing a recall election, he raised an unprecedented $45 million, mostly from out of state, outspending the rival Democrat Tom Barrett by at least five to one.

Campaign Advertisement: Walker did what he was elected to do. Walker made the tough decisions to fix Wisconsin’s budget, get our economy moving, and put taxpayers back in charge. Today, Wisconsin is adding jobs.

VO: Walker had been narrowly elected in 2010. After six weeks in office, he proposed bill SB 11 that would effectively end collective bargaining rights and cut wages for unionized public employees. Wisconsin, the birthplace of collective bargaining rights, became ground zero for the battle of union and labor rights in the United States. Filmmaker Aime Williams documented the historic citizen uprising against Governor Walker’s bill. The Real News Network caught up with the director and cast members at the world premiere of We Are Wisconsin at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto.

Master of Ceremonies: Please welcome back the director, Aime Williams.

Aime Williams, Director:[incompr.] before we take a question, I’d like each one of you to talk really briefly about how participating in this event, this historic event, and the film changed you.

Melissa Austin, Activist: Prior to this, I was a stay-at-home mom with three kids. Husband’s a police officer. Kind of very insular life that I didn’t realize was insular until this happened. And then I realized that, well, with the stroke of the pen, rights, all of our rights, can be wiped away, and that we are up against a tremendous amount of money and power and influence. But guess what? People, our voice, our collective voice will always win. And I learned that, and I will never forget it, and I’m teaching my kids that.

Williams: The great thing about what happened in Wisconsin is that ordinary, everyday people found their voice. It was like a spark: let’s get this guy out of office. And everybody got up in the morning and went down to the capital to kind of touch base with their community and find out what’s next, you know, what’s the amendments, what’s happening. And people started participating in democracy. You know. And that for me was, like, a beautiful story to tell.

VO: Madison police officer Brian Austin was one of the main characters featured in the film.

BRIAN AUSTIN, POLICE UNION EXECUTIVE BOARD MEMBER: We took a full-page ad out of the paper, our union, in support of workers’ rights.

VO: Your union was not actually under attack, was not included in the bill.

B. Austin: Right.

VO: Could you speak to that?

B. Austin: We realized—actually, the first day the bill was announced, we started reading summaries of it, that we were going to be exempt, all the police or most of the police unions and fire unions in the state were exempt from the legislation, meaning we were going to retain our collective bargaining rights. And, you know, we can argue, we can speculate as to what the reasons were. I believe that the governor was, number one, trying to divide labor. And that was a very clear line to divide groups on. I think they were also expecting us to fall in line. I think that he probably expected some civil unrest and, you know, he wanted us there to clean up his mess for him. And I think we behaved in a way that really surprised him. I mean, I talked to somebody close to his administration who said he was furious with our response. You know, he just expected us to act like the good soldiers and thank him for our exemption and sit it out. So we came out and we came out very publicly and very loud and very forcefully. And I think we had a huge impact on this debate, even though our numbers are small. You know, people really—especially the kind of middle-of-the-road people, really listened to what police officers and firefighters had to say. It’s hard to discount us as crackpots or anarchists or, you know, fringe people. You know, when the cops and firefighters are protesting, there’s a problem. So I’m proud of the role we played in that, many on-duty officers who probably didn’t support what we were doing, but they did protect people’s rights to exercise their free speech and their right to be heard without violence and without fear of retribution. And we really set the model for the world, I think, in terms of making that happen. So it’s going to be critical going forward, because I think if the police can build a relationship with protesters and, you know, we can start kind of a progressive movement in policing, that’s going to turn the whole conversation on its head.

VO: How was that for you, participating in the film, and then going home and being there, and then seeing how, you know, the media was reporting it?

M. Austin:It was absolutely the most frustrating thing, because, I think, on an intellectual level we all knew we don’t believe everything we read, we don’t believe everything we see. But to see it, to have it happening to us, it was—I don’t even know if I have the vocabulary to describe how brokenhearted I was after going downtown, protesting with these people who were, you know, in their 60s and 70s and our neighbors—I saw my kids’ teachers, I saw police officers, I saw—there were UAW people there, there were—like, and to go home and hear the newscasters completely turn it around. My family believed what they saw on the news. They absolutely believe it. What was happening on the news was the real story because Fox News doesn’t lie, and that we were atrocious parents for bringing our children to that awful, violent situation. You know. And it’s really sad to me, because my own father chose to—instead of listening to my story, he chose—my father would rather hear about my family and my children and what we went through [from] some corporate newscaster instead of calling his daughter and asking her what was going on and asking her if we were okay, because we are not okay. The boot of oppression was on our hearts for days and weeks and months and it was awful. And I just needed my dad to say, are you okay? And he refused to talk to us, and they’re still not talking to us, and because that is how powerful these people in corporate media are. And that is their goal, I guess, to just break up families.

B. Austin: The thing I realized is fear and hate are very, very powerful motivators. And I think the right wing in our country has done a masterful job of harnessing that fear.

VO: Scott Walker’s campaign spending is the highest in U.S. history for a state election.

B. Austin: In my opinion, Tuesday was kind of a referendum on what’s happening in this country as far as our campaign finance and the influence of money in our political system. And it’s—I think Tuesday was proof that it has utterly run amok. So they raised tens of millions of dollars and completely carpet bombed our airwaves, both TV and radio, with ads. You know, we all know in the labor movement how important labor unions have been, not just for members of those unions but for workers as a whole in society, and it’s continued to be borne out. States without significant labor presence have, you know, a significantly lower standard of living for their workers. But this governor and his allies completely demonized organized labor. And, you know, to show how bad it was, a significant portion, over 30 percent of union members, voted for Scott Walker in the recall election. And if that’s not a really telling testament to their messaging, you know, to get people to vote directly against their best interests, I don’t know what is.

VO: The election to recall, not a total loss, managed to flip the Senate from a GOP majority.

B. Austin: I had absolutely no doubt in my mind that right-to-work legislation was coming that essentially busts both public and private unions. Twenty-three of our states here have right-to-work legislation. And right-to-work states, you know, the workers earn a significant percentage less compared to unionized states. So we were very concerned about that. And, you know, on top of that, there was rumors that we would see a personhood amendment, you know, a really stringent antiabortion type legislation to come—you know, coming through and [incompr.] you know, really, things the far right wanted to push through.

VO: The war wages on for those who campaigned against Walker.

Williams: —if I’ve learned anything from making this film, is Wisconsinites don’t give up. There’ll be other things that these—you know, a movement has been started. These people are not going to stop.

B. Austin: You know, the nice thing about having a movement that has so many new activists in it like me, you know, 16 months of political activism, is it’s in infancy. And the benefit of that kind of movement is you have a lot of people who have a lot of energy left and a lot of ideas and a lot of creativity. So we’re very energized to keep fighting here.

Williams: After June 5, we’re going to take the film on the road and we’re going to try to take it into every community in our country to, you know, inspire people to take a more active, participatory role in our democracy.

M. Austin:And this is [incompr.] this isn’t just Wisconsin. This is something we hope that you all will take with you wherever you go and remember that it’s—the power is with people. And I will never take it for granted again. And my children will be raised knowing that their voices matter and that they can be powerful too.

B. Austin: Initially, there’s this letdown, and, you know, is the film relevant? And actually I think the film is even more relevant now, and I think it’s even more imperative that people see this film, because people can take the message out of what happened on Tuesday that, you know what, no matter what you do, you can’t beat money. And I think we showed very hopeful signs in that film that people have to organize and have to get together and, you know, sometimes get in the streets. And we may have lost the battle on Tuesday, but there’s a lot more that can happen here and I think will happen. So, you know, we want people to stay engaged and stay connected. And, you know, what’s happening here is relevant to what’s happening in Canada, is relevant to what’s happening in Europe, in Asia, and all over the globe.

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