CAP TIMES: Solidarity Singers director says 'we're there to petition our government'

December 13, 2011
Steven Elbow

Chris Reeder doesn't think new state policies imposing permit restrictions and costs on protesters at the Capitol are directed at him and the group of Solidarity Singers he leads.

But you have to wonder. The new dictates come at a time when the singers are easily the most consistent voice of dissent. Since March 11, they've never missed a weekday — that's 232 singalongs as of Friday, most of them in the Capitol rotunda.

And they're loud. Their collective voice reverberates through the Capitol like a church organ. How would you feel if you were Gov. Scott Walker and every noon hour anywhere from 60 to 150 robust singers were happily heralding what a crappy governor they think you are — all within earshot of your own office?

The group is not exactly a favorite of Capitol Republicans. Last May state Rep. Michelle Litjens tweeted: "I've had enough! One hour of union protesters singing, 'We Will Overcome' etc. in the Capital Rotunda!!! When with (sic) the insanity end!"

It's not an isolated view, and the group was targeted at least once by tea party activists in an incident last summer during which one protester was allegedly punched in the face.

Their spirit and tenacity has gained them something of a following beyond the state's border, and over the past nine months they've been joined by the likes of Anne Feeney, Arlo Guthrie and Michelle Shocked.

I caught up with the Solidarity Singers outside on the State Street Capitol steps last Thursday, looking cheery and determined despite temps in the low 20s. They were outside because a troupe of Christmas carolers were in the rotunda, but the Solidarity Singers' renditions of Christmas favorites were much different that those being sung inside, with lyrics like, "I'm dreaming of a new governor," and, "Make him go, make him go, make him go."

In the middle of it all was Reeder, who couldn't have looked more comfortable if he were basking in a tropical breeze.

The Capital Times: How did you get involved in the singalongs?

Chris Reeder: I kept coming down to the rallies and I really wanted to find something more to do. I wasn't sure what it was. My background is as an actor and doing live theater. I don't have any political background. I don't have any organizing background. Then one day all of a sudden these singalongs showed up and I thought "Oh, this is something I actually have training to do."

CT: But you didn't start the singalongs?

CR: No. Steve Burns (program director for Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice), who started the singalongs, was doing a full week of them and I showed up every day. And about the fourth day he lost his voice and asked me if I'd be willing to do the next one, and I said, "Sure. I have no idea what to do but yes, I will." And I've been leading and organizing the singalongs since then.

CT: Do you have a day job?

CR: I'm doing some delivery work. I'm getting a little stipend from the singalongs, the money we make from T-shirt sales and stuff, so I can make sure to be dedicating the time I need.

CT: You said your wife is expecting your first baby in March. Think that will get in the way?

CR: Things will change a little bit. We have a number of other people who do the singalongs sometimes. I'm trying to get a group of people who are OK with leading the singalongs so come March I can hopefully take a week or two off.

CT: When I came to the singalong on Thursday, there were about 40 singers to start with and you ended up with about 60. Is that typical?

CR: Sixty is about our low end these days. I think with our outdoor ones we get a few less because people are rotating in and out trying to keep warm. Usually we're running about 60 to 150. Our Friday ones tend to be with a band, so those would be a little higher.

CT: What kind of reception do you typically get from lawmakers?

CR: We have a lot of legislators stop by, which is great. A bunch of the Wisconsin 14 stopped by on the day of our 200th singalong to congratulate us. Republican legislators walk by every once in awhile. Glenn Grothman seems to enjoy the singing.

CT: Is it generally the same singers who show up?

CR: There definitely are people who are there several times a week, if not every day. Or there are people who might show up once a week or once a month or when they can. Over nine months there's kind of a community of the regulars that has developed.

CT: Has the event helped organize the anti-Walker movement?

CR: It's definitely a central networking point — a lot of connections being made, a lot of people figuring out ways to work together.

CT: Who comes up with the songs?

CR: It's a very collaborative process. We talk about it on our Facebook page. I'll bring up a new idea for a song. People will throw in this idea or that idea and eventually we come up with the song that we're going to sing. Social media, I mean, I was never a believer until Feb. 14. All of a sudden I believe in the power of social media.

CT: The governor's new policy requiring permits and fees could put you out of the Capitol. How are you dealing with that?

CR: I'm talking to lawyers right now, and they're talking to lawyers at the Capitol. Obviously I can't say anything about those discussions — at least that's what my lawyers tell me.

CT: But what if you get the boot?

CR: If they boot us out of the rotunda we will sing outside. We're going to be there singing at the Capitol. We're very committed in our beliefs, and we're there to speak out against Walker. We're there to petition our government and we will continue to do so.

CT: Is there an end point?

CR: I have this dream that the day after the election we'll sing in the rotunda to celebrate. And the day after that will be the first day the rotunda is silent since March 11. But we've also talked about when Walker's gone, when we vote him out, of keeping it going because there will always be issues to work on. Even if we vote in the people we want, we still have to pressure them.