Who Says Art And Politics Don’t Mix? Tom Morello & The Battle of Madison

 

Tom Morello performs at the Capitol in Madison, WI.
Photograph by Narayan Mahon for RollingStone.com
By Tom Morello
February 25, 2011 5:25 PM ET

I’ve played hundreds of protests. I’ve marched on dozens of picket lines. I’ve strummed my guitar at innumerable demonstrations. I’ve been arrested more times than I’m willing to put in print in support of striking workers. But I thought now is the time to take a break. I have a 16-month-old son crawling around on the floor and another baby boy about to be born any day now, so I decided to curtail the traveling, the protesting, the rocking.

And then I turned on the news. For days I had been following the exciting events in Cairo and across the Middle East. But when I turned on the television and saw 100,000 people marching through the streets of MADISON, WISCONSIN to protest an anti-union bill put forward by some schmuck named Governor Walker it caught my attention. I turned to my wife and said, “Honey, our boys are gonna grow up to be union men.” She sighed and replied, “The Nightwatchman is needed. You should go.”

And so The Nightwatchman went.

A nice lady at the airport looked at my guitar and politely asked, “Why are you going to Madison, young man?” I replied, “Because they’re making history in Madison, ma’am. And I don’t want to miss it.”

So I flew to Chicago with Wayne Kramer (of the legendary MC5) only to find that all the flights to Madison had been cancelled due to a big winter storm. But neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow, nor dark of night can keep The Nightwatchman from his appointed task. My good friend and fellow musician from Libertyville, Illinois, Ike Reilly, picked us up at the airport and together with our small crew of rabble-rousers we began the precarious journey up I-90 through the storm. Cars and trucks were piled up in the ditch along the roadside, but with fortitude and constant reminders from elder statesman Wayne Kramer that “We’re in no hurry here. Slow down, brother,” we made it safely to Madison.

Upon arrival, we linked up with the Boston band Street Dogs and Tim McIlrath from Rise Against, all sturdy union supporters. We had a great meeting with representatives of the AFL-CIO to make plans for the following day. They have been one of the unions spearheading these historic protests but I sensed that they were somewhat nervous about me staying “on message.” Perhaps they had read stories about riots at Rage Against the Machine shows, or maybe because I was decked out head-to-toe in my Industrial Workers of the World gear. Anyway, I was eager to get to the Capitol building and into the action.

The Capitol building in Madison has been occupied by students and workers for more than ten days now. But at 11 PM the doors are locked, and if you’re in, you’re in, and if you’re out, you’re out. We were out. And so one of the protesters on the inside claimed that I was his intern in order to slip me through security. Once inside, I was amazed at what I saw: the building was packed with a cross section of the people of Madison, all demanding justice. There were students, teachers, firefighters, policemen, veterans, nurses, old hippies and young rebels in every corner and corridor of the building. There was a festive spirit in the air and a determined feeling that they were indeed making history. On my way out, I was actually “bro-ing down” with some cops…AT A PROTEST. Quite new for me. The police were union men themselves, and wholly supportive of the protesters, and I thought, “This is a strange and new, exciting day indeed when the police are delivering bratwurst to the students occupying the State Capitol and high-fiving The Nightwatchman.”

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