In his book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, UW-Madison English professor Rob Nixon writes about a long process of “slow violence” against vulnerable places and populations. Nixon argues for a change in the way violence is defined, so that the “long dyings” caused in the aftermath of wars and slow environmental changes become as spectacular in the mass media as the detonation of a unexpected terrorist bomb. Often barely visible until its consequence are irreversible, slow violence takes place in the wake of historically traumatic events. In Wisconsin, for example, the fluorescence of rallies against the passage of Act 10 in 2011 was spectacular. But the subsequent effects of the loss of their right to organize on students, teachers and teachers aids since then has been both prolonged and quiet.
Evidence of slow violence abound in the proposed Wisconsin biennial budget for 2016-2018. It proposes drastic reductions in state spending on both K-12 and higher education; cuts to vital program supporting seniors and the disabled; challenges to conservation efforts, and new limits of lifetime eligibility for state assistance for families with children.
The Joint Finance Committee of the Wisconsin legislature held four hearings around the state on this budget last week. I attended the one held in Milwaukee, during UWM’s Spring Break, on March 20. I got there at 10 am and wound up staying all day. At first, I was waiting for my turn to speak, carried through the long hours by the compatibility of several of my colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. We sat together, tried to get work done, shared snacks and battery power for our devices.
Initially I was not listening closely to the testimonies that came from hundreds of people. But over the course of the day, the sheer volume of words, their emotional pitch, got to me. By the time it was my turn to speak – at close to 7 pm – what I wanted most to talk about was the collective impetus of what had been said, read and performed over the course of ten straight hours. Taken together, the many statements pointed to a historical and moral sea change taking place in our state.
Of the hundreds of speakers that day, almost all were from organizations representing the most vulnerable populations in the state: students, the disabled, the poor, seniors, immigrants, wild creatures and places. Many disability activists spoke of the impact on individuals if Include, Respect, I Self-Direct (IRIS), a program that allows them to maintain their independence, was cut. Teachers and students from our great system of K-12 public education talked about increasing class sizes and decreasing resources; many advocates for anti-tobacco education programs in the schools elaborated on the ravages of tobacco usage, particularly in low-income communities. College students, professors and administrators talked about debt load and the increasing inaccessibility of a college education. Senior and veterans’ advocates drew vivid pictures of what their lives would be like without public programs like transportation assistance. Outdoor sports enthusiasts and naturalists testified about the potentially devastating effects on wildlife and wild places if current plans to privatize state parks and cut conservation programs go through. Demonstrating outside the building and then streaming in to sit quietly in the auditorium, young Immigrant rights advocates dressed in caps and gowns dramatized the impact of the loss of tuition equity for undocumented students who have grown up in Wisconsin after 2011.
Collectively, these voices spoke for those with the least access to political power in the state. Wild life and wild places do not speak in a language that is understood by politicians in Madison and Washington. Students and teachers, seniors and disability advocates do, but their voices are increasingly drowned out by the influence of powerful cabals like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), by the millions of dollars poured into Wisconsin by out of state powerbrokers like the Koch brothers, and by the controversial 2012 political redistricting.
So I tossed away the statement I had prepared to read, about the potential impact of the $300 million proposed cuts to the UW system on units like Comparative Ethnic Studies, which came into being in universities only because of organized student demand. My colleagues and I had collected statements from our students about the importance of their coursework to them. As I compiled these words and wrote a brief introduction to them, I wondered thought about how students of color around the country and in Milwaukee fought for the creation of courses and programs that reflect their needs, their histories. These programs now find themselves in the crosshairs, low-hanging fruit for budget cuts as a result of a falsely produced austerity.
Over the course of the day, I realized that my initial question about Ethnic Studies as a program conjured by student demand connects to much deeper issues about resource allocation and power; about nothing less than how democracy works in Wisconsin, and whether it is possible any longer. Across the span of nine hours, hundreds of people spoke about their struggles for physical, social and cultural survival in Wisconsin. This budget and its representatives represent a harsh and undemocratic order in which these voices have no say in what goes on in our state. What I most wanted to ask our elected representatives at the end of the day was: which side are you on? The side of the people, the environment, students and teachers, elderly and disabled: all of us assembled to speak? Or of violence against all of these?
Over the course of nine hours, the slow violence taking place in Wisconsin was made visible. Recognizing this can create new kinds of relationships and alliances. This democratic process happening among us is the hope we have going forward.