Protesters use Pence visit to talk solidarity, labor and health care

Standing outside the Dairyland Power Cooperative offices in La Crosse on Labor Day, as helicopters buzzed overheard, Laura Abellera had a message about solidarity and what that word means to her.

“Solidarity is not charity. I’m not talking about setting up monthly donations to funnel through a foundation…Solidarity is doing your research on where Trump donors work in La Crosse, where they own property, where they own businesses and if possible, accessible and doable for you, refusing to support their hate with your wallet,” Abellera said. “I might get some pushback for this but major examples of this in our community are the Webers, the Charmant, La Crosse Distillery, Restore Public House, Belle Square, the Waterfront, the Hilton downtown, the Zietlows and Kwik Trip. These places might be convenient but when you buy things there it is supporting their donations to Trump.”

Kwik Trip CEO Don Zietlow and Don Weber, a real estate developer involved with most of the businesses Abellera listed, both made six-figure donations to support the Trump campaign in the 2016 election cycle. So far, both have refrained from making donations to Trump for the 2020 elections, although they have donated to the campaigns of other Republican candidates, including Dan Kapanke and Derrick Van Orden.

Abellera was among the speakers at the Lifting Up Love demonstration, organized by local activists, outside the Dairyland facility in La Crosse where Vice President Mike Pence spoke on Monday.

“When Black, brown, disabled and trans lives are being taken by state-sanctioned violence we need to prioritize solidarity and direct action over being liked by our coworkers, losing racist friends or family friends,” Abellera said. “We need to be agitators and disruptors. We cannot continue to choose likability over human lives.”

Abellera added that it was a time to be “unapologetically vocal” and to understand that protest can yield results, no matter what those in power might say.

“It is a myth, perpetuated by the oppressors, that small direct actions targeting a violent system does nothing. It absolutely does something,” she said. “Their egos are fragile.”

The view outside Vice President Mike Pence’s event in La Crosse on Labor Day.

The demonstrators at the Lifting Up Love event far outnumbered a small group of Trump supporters, who stood on the opposite side of the street until both groups moved closer together to stand at the entrance to the site where Pence was speaking.

Sadie Szabelski, a first-generation, fourth-year student at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse, where she also works as Desk Coordinator and Mail Center Coordinator, was another of the speakers at the demonstration. She spoke about the working conditions on campus as students return to classes in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic. Szabelski was among the student workers who launched a petition drive last week to highlight their concerns about what they saw as a lack of preparedness for the risk of a major covid outbreak the returning students posed. 

“We are scared because we came to the campus thinking that things would be safe and it was not safe, they did not have measures in place before we got there,” she said, noting that many of the Residence Life workers at UWL are students of color who rely on the positions to get through university, as they include room and board.

Szabelski’s group secured a meeting last week with university administration to outline their demands, which included hazard pay, improved cleaning protocols and job security for student workers.

“The next day, nothing happened; they didn’t take us seriously,” she said. “Everybody continued to move in and now we have all of our residents on campus. We have Resident Assistants who are quarantined and they don’t want to talk about that to the public. They don’t want to say that we are in a scary situation, that it’s now a high-risk zone.”

She called on the public to pressure university officials into listening to the student workers and making changes that improve safety for all. The students want the university to hold a virtual forum on the risks from covid where questions can be aired publicly.

“We need your support to say they need to do more,” Szabelski said. “They need to help us and support us because this is our community, this our state that we share together, united.”

SALUTE TO LABOR

Pence spoke in La Crosse on a Labor Day when the city’s traditional parade was canceled because of the pandemic. But Ben Wilson, who works as the organizer for the Citizen Action of Wisconsin Driftless Co-op, reminded the demonstrators of the importance of organized labor.

“Who gave us Labor Day, who gave us this day? Unions,” he said. “Who gave us the 40-hour work week? Unions. Who gave workers in America the rights that they have now? Unions.”

Wilson, speaking across the street from where Pence was delivering his invite-only speech, also shared a personal story that illustrated his opposition to the vice president.

“I’m a gay man living with HIV and that man over there, Mike Pence, has caused a lot of people like me to die and that’s not an exaggeration,” Wilson said. “That man over there, defunded HIV treatment when he was governor of Indiana. That man defunded safer sex education which led to his state having America’s worst HIV outbreak in history.”

Pence is now part of an administration that has repeatedly tried to overturn the Affordable Care Act, which includes a provision that stopped health insurers from refusing to give coverage to people who have pre-existing conditions.

“Every other day we see a tweet from Donald Trump saying he’s protecting people with pre-existing conditions yet his administration still, to this day, is in court trying to get rid of the Affordable Care Act,” Wilson said, before pointing to a small group of Trump supporters and adding, “There are people over there, in those red hats, that have pre-existing conditions, that if Donald Trump gets his way, they will suffer the consequences. They are voting against their own self-interest. They are voting against you, and they are voting against me.”

Wilson concluded by saying that although Joe Biden was far from his top choice among the candidates who competed in the Democratic primary, it was essential that people work together to elect Biden and remove Trump from power.

“Our democracy is at stake, our country is at stake,” Wilson said. “We have to get him out of the White House.”

Monday’s Lifting Up Love event was organized by a group that included the Our Wisconsin Revolution – La Crosse Chapter, Citizen Action of Wisconsin Driftless Co-op, and The Free.

By Eric Timmons. Email questions or story ideas to lacrosseindependent@gmail.com.

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