The Political Protest as Personal: Inside the Milwaukee Fight the Grad Tax March

Photo of Protester at Milwaukee Fight the Grad Tax, December 9, 2017

Photo used courtesy of RS Dereen and Julia Valder. All rights reserved. 


In 2003, I decided that I wanted to become a teacher. At the time, I had a strong interest in history. I was in the 8th grade, and I had a teacher who made me think, “I can do what you’re doing. Only better.” For the next half dozen years, I dedicated my studies to powerful people, the choices they made, and the ramifications of those choices that echoed through time. I was always a writer, too. However, coming from a working-class family from rural Michigan, I was raised to value practicality and felt I wouldn’t be able to house or feed myself on words alone. Then a few publications turned into a few more. My history studies became a hobby and writing became my focus. In 2014, I was accepted into an MFA program and spent the next three years working and writing and collected a mortgage-worth of student debt (much to the chagrin of my parents). I still wanted to teach and had been finding short-term positions throughout the years in community organizations, a prison, as a middle school substitute, community college internships, etc. I banked on a position in a PhD program to help me get ahead. It was a long shot, but what is a practical man without his dreams?

I spent my rent money on PhD applications and saw my dream fizzle in the ensuing months as rejection letters came in. With my MFA in hand, I called a neighborhood pizza shop who had posted a HELP WANTED ad on Craigslist. I started there that same day.

On Monday, April 3rd 2017, while getting ready for my shift, I received an acceptance letter from the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee. They were pleased to announce that they were offering me a Teaching Assistantship and a full tuition remission. I remember collapsing to my kitchen floor, crying. I called my dad. He was floored, too. I had earned the ticket to my future.

On Thursday, November 2nd 2017, House Republicans introduced House Bill 1, the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.”

I write this tired. I haven’t slept much since. Why? Amongst the legalese and proposed handouts for the rich, there is a provision in HB1 that calls for the removal of Code 117d from the current US Tax Code. It is the tax exemption status for graduate program tuition. In short, if this provision survives reconciliation with the Senate GOP Tax Plan, the best-case scenario would be that a graduate student living on a meager stipend would see an increase in their yearly taxes by 300%. For me personally, I fare much worse and would see a 770% yearly increase. But the difference between these numbers is negligible when almost every single grad student faces the same truth: if any iteration of the GOP tax bill passes with the removal of Code 117d, none of us will be able to afford our educations. Our futures will be over.

A brief rundown of HB1’s main points shows no less that six proposed repeals of deductions for individuals, while at the same time offering no less than the same number of tax relief clauses for corporations and businesses. The Right claims that giving more money to the richest few will lead to larger crumbs for the rest of us rubes. Let’s not get into the BILLIONS of dollars corporations like Apple already don’t pay, for we know that when given the choice between reinvesting/raising wages, or sheltering (hoarding) short-term profits overseas, businesses will always do the latter and never think of the former. Let’s not get into the lie of “trickle-down” economics, for we all know that there is only one thing that ever flows downhill, and it sure as shirttails isn’t money (but smells just as bad). Let’s not get into the fact that, as of 2016, almost forty million US citizens did not have access to enough food. The House GOP got the name of their bill wrong. It’s backwards. This isn’t a tax cut and jobs act; it’s a Jobs Cut and Tax Act. It’s class warfare. It’s not a mortgage of the future; it’s the murder of it.

Let us, instead, get into a scene of protest, a continued moment of Resistance in these times of… lunacy.

On Saturday, December 9th 2017, at Milwaukee’s Pere Marquette Park, along the west bank of the Milwaukee River, over 150 protestors huddled against the cold and hollered against the proposed “Grad Tax” in HB1. Organizers Maggie Nettesheim Hoffman, Alexis Jordan, Alexis McAdams, and Steven Vickers had one week to rally as many scared and angry graduate students as they could in time to deliver a petition to Senator Ron Johnson’s office before he returned to DC to partake in the reconciliation of the two GOP tax plans.

“I planned the event because no one else would,” Vickers, a Masters Student in Marquette’s History Department says. “I reached out to Maggie, and we made it happen.”

Signs reading “Tuition is not Income” and “DEFEND NOT DEFUND GRAD STUDENTS” bobbed above the tide of protesters. State Senator Lena Taylor (Wisconsin’s 4th) championed the positive impact that higher education has not only on the individual grad student, but on the community they are involved in. State Representative Jonathan Brostoff (Assembly District 19) spoke about the struggles of grad student life and how the small stipends grads live off of pay to put “milk in the fridge,” as one protester yelled. Dr. Timothy McMahon (Associate History Professor at Marquette) empathized with the crowd, having lived through these struggles himself.

“The Grad Tax definitely scares me,” says University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee PhD candidate Jessica Johnston. “We still get paid poverty wages, but if this goes through, I have no idea how, or even if, I’ll be able to continue pursuing my PhD.”

Protesters filed down Kilbourn Avenue, marching past Rolls Royce coupes and Bentleys parked outside the InterContinental hotel. Valets looked on as a graduate student and mother pushed her kids along in a stroller. Chants of “No education!” were returned with “No democracy!” And isn’t that the truth?

The future of this country—the ability of those able to afford cars worth more than houses—rests on the advancements of the minds of those in high education. Passersby in minivans and compacts honked in approval as the throng maneuvered icy sidewalks and the intersection of Kilbourn and Wisconsin Avenues. The crowd gathered on the steps of the Wisconsin Federal Building where organizers, in a true show of democracy, gave the stage to fellow protesters. A mother of a grad student spoke. A mathematician told the crowd of her dreams. Many more spoke of the theft not only of their lives, but of the potential impact the Grad Tax would have on the future of American education, industry, and growth.

“Let’s first remember there are real people with lives that will be ruined by this tax,” says Johnston.

The GOP wants the country to think we are some kind of liberal elitist bookworms, sitting in our ivory towers, sipping chamomile tea and talking about, I don’t know, Proust? They want to characterize us as impractical, as out of touch. They want to dehumanize us for a quick buck. I write this in long johns and an undershirt with yellow armpits. I scheduled my semester around hunting season. I tell my students they can’t get ahold of me during Michigan Football and Red Wings Hockey games because, as I tell my freshmen students, “Don’t let college eat you alive. Hold on to your life outside of the books.” I say this because I am not alone. The speakers on the steps of the Federal Building are not alone.  

We are real people.

I write this with no milk in my fridge. I write this with no bread in my pantry. I write this having made $15,000 dollars from my teaching stipend this year; the most I have ever made in one year, in my entire life. I write this hungry. Now, the GOP wants to tax me as if I were an elite, as if I were actually paid more than three times what I actually make, as if I were just some financially-illiterate fool who gave the majority of his wages right back to his boss.

There was a sign at Saturday’s rally. Etched in red marker on the backside of a shoebox lid. Six words that speak to the truth of the cost of higher education in America today. Six words that speak to the lives led by grad students. Six words that speak to the cruelty of House Bill 1. “I can’t eat my tuition waiver.”

Right now, the Senate GOP Tax Plan doesn’t include a provision to repeal the tax exemption on graduate school tuition. However, as the two Houses meet and iron and deal, the specter of House Bill 1’s repeal of Code 117d lingers. This is not what America is supposed to be. We are not supposed to be governed by fear, forced to take sleeping pills so we can calm our nerves enough to get some sleep, so we can be mostly alert to teach the next morning. We are supposed to be the shining example for the rest of the world. Brilliant minds the world over, and from a small patch of woods in rural Michigan, should look to our graduate programs and say, “There. My future is waiting for me.” We are supposed to be a country that welcomes these minds, supports their futures, and leads the world.

I chanted, “Tell me what democracy looks like” into a bullhorn on Saturday. Over 150 protesters answered “This is what democracy looks like” as we braved the ice and snow outside Senator Ron Johnson’s Milwaukee office. He, and the rest of those who want to take our futures away, better be listening, because we have a voice. And it will be heard.

About the Author

RS Deeren is PhD student at UW-Milwaukee. He writes about odd jobs he’s had that helped pay the bills. His work is in Joyland, Midwestern Gothic, The Great Lakes Review, The Legendary, BartlebySnopes, and elsewhere. His short story, “Enough to Lose,” is anthologized in Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation edited by John Freeman. He’s a Luminarts Cultural Foundation Creative Writing Fellow and a MFA recipient from Columbia College Chicago. Before moving to the west side of Lake Michigan, he worked as a line cook, landscaper, lumberjack, and bank teller in rural Michigan. Follow him @RSDeeren