This third report from Madison is difficult to write. Since at least the middle of last week there are too many lines of development for one person to follow, much less explain. In that sense, the Wisconsin uprising has truly become a broad movement, complete with sub-fronts, fissures, and rumors swirling daily. Ten days ago I still had the security of knowing that I had a privileged view of the struggle by virtue of living here. Now, I get the feeling that I’m only seeing the close-up action, while larger forces with national reach, perhaps imperceptible to us inside the city limits, are somehow shaping the contest.
This feeling of disconnect, of the local movement having lost its monopoly on the narrative, was confirmed when I started receiving email blasts last week from MoveOn, Democracy for America, TrueMajority, and other national progressive groups. After about the third one (and there have been countless since) I cringed to see the creativity, humor, and outrage of a citizen and worker-driven, organically developing movement that has no central leadership, and variable demands, be reduced to a branded online petition and donation button. I’ll take the sectarian newspaper hawkers over the dumbness of a professionally marketed email cause (of the week, or until donations crest) any day. At least the sectarian leftists entertain with their inadvertant goofiness.
Let’s talk about three fronts to this battle: the space of the Capitol, the April 5 election, and the possibility of a strike. Each one is a complicated tale in its own right.
Up until about last Sunday night, Feb 27, the Capitol building could be accurately described as occupied. Up until late this past Thursday there were still protestors inside. For their last four days they dwindled in number and were basically cut off from the outside. The attrition—once a person exited, they were not allowed back in—guaranteed that the authorities would retake the Capitol sooner or later.
The Capitol police had been boxing demonstrators out of various corridors and corners of the building all week long. The occupied space shrunk continuously through the simple tactic of clearing people out of a section “for cleaning” and then marking that section off with police tape and posting police to guard it. The order to vacate the building in whole was finally delivered on Sunday, but with several hundred demonstrators inside, the police chose to let people stay but locked newcomers out. And so the attrition began. Looking back, it was a very smart non-confrontational move on the part of the Capitol police.
This Wisconsin constitution specifies that the Capitol is to remain open to the public during all daytime hours. Scott Walker flouted this constitutional guarantee, thereby inviting a lawsuit. A Dane County judge quickly granted the demonstrators a temporary restraining order on Monday, preventing the governor from locking out the public. But he flouted that, too, and kept only one door unlocked and guarded, and set rules for who could come in—some vague requirement that it be “on official business.” The situation became so ridiculous that the Dane County sheriff, Jim Mahoney, took the extraordinary step of relieving his deputies of having to guard the entrances. Walker doesn’t control the sheriff, and Mahoney let him know it by quipping that the sheriff’s deputies “are not palace guards.” Thus continued the sub-plot of Scott Walker antagonizing even law enforcement. (Word from unnamed sources is, the Madison police—one of the best educated forces in the country—are resentful. He’s transferred into Madison a bunch of outstate cops to help, but their loyalty is questionable, too. Only the Capitol police are under his strict control.)
The Teaching Assistants Association ran the occupation—coordinated cleaning, managed the food, kept in contact with the police, etc—and they had the option on Sunday to end the occupation on their terms, in consultation with the police. They chose not to, and the lockout is what happened; after a few days of legal wrangling, the building was opened to the public again, but with shifting and possibly illegal conditions placed by the governor. No matter. Even with this setback and miscalculation, the occupation was a success. In America there have been only a handful of occupations of state capitol buildings historically, and all the rest were only for a day or part of day. The occupation in Madison went on day and night for thirteen days. Already it is widely acknowledged as an historic event. The longer term ramifications are unsettled, but clearly there will be some. As far as the governor bringing in the heavies goes, here again, as with this whole sorry tale to begin with, he overreached. The video of a Democrat lawmaker getting thrown to the ground while trying to enter the building has further hurt the standing of the governor.
Equally important has been the nature of the occupation, what it proved to the demonstrators, and what the space became. During the day the rotunda was a cauldron of shared anger, the drumming and unison shouting so loud it made your ears ring, and kept the lawmakers hidden deep in their chambers and offices on edge all day long. By the second week, the occupied areas would turn into a social forum in the late evenings and nighttime, with people coming to read the hundreds of signs, to talk politics with strangers, to eat free food, and to perform music or speechify from the open mike center. It was quite a sight, and for anybody who entered during those days, one’s sense of possibility could not help but be enlarged—this was a co-op, a commune, a punk house (where everybody cleaned up after themselves, imagine that), a labor temple, a free speech zone…in the freakin’ state Capitol building! When does that ever happen?! (Apparently, it has happened before, in 1985. See comments.) This will not be erased from memory anytime soon. Also worth reiterating here is the way the occupation started. That first Tuesday night/early Wed morning, Feb 15-16, when debate was cut off by the Republicans, those waiting to testify against Walker’s bill were so many and so livid with anger that the police couldn’t do anything. The cops were too scared. Those who weren’t scared were sympathetic.
Here is very good take on the occupation, how it evolved, what it served, what it meant. Sorry, you have to read it on Facebook.
Next: The April 5th election. The reality is, should Scott Walker ram through his bill—and all indications are that he still believes that he can—many of the provisions will be decided in the courts. The Wisconsin Supreme Court now has a 4-3 conservative majority, but a sitting conservative judge is up for election on April 5, facing a liberal challenger, an environmental law attorney from lefty Madison. (In Wisconsin judges are an elected position. As in all other parts of American political life, what used to be a rather sedate, non-partisan affair has in recent years become yet another polarized fight zone.) This election will be treated as a referendum on the Walker agenda. One question is, then, how will the movement make the transition from street demonstrations to taking a side in an electoral campaign? Are there enough people with enough energy to keep Scott Walker embattled with large demonstrations at the Capitol for the next four weeks while also ramping up work on what is normally a low-key, low turnout, spring election? As well, there are now recall campaigns underway, targeting the eight eligible Republican state senators, ie who have been in office for at least a year already. The recall process is by design extremely demanding, and no matter how energized an electorate, requires a great deal of effort for even a chance of success. The movement only needs to recall and replace three senators to gain control of the Wisconsin Senate, but even this will require the dedicated attention of many activists, not to mention money, legal counsel, media work, etc.
In sum, since my last report, battles on the terrain of conventional electoral politics have emerged as another true front of the struggle. Here, too, as with the contest over control of the Capitol, there is a politics of space in play, but at the comparatively neglected scale of the state senate districts, typically encompassing an average population of 160k, some more and some less, and a ground area of about two or more counties. One by-product of all this mess is, thousands more state residents will learn for the first time what the size and shape of their senate district is, and, moreover, what it means to act politically at that scale of space. For nearly a generation now, the US left has permitted the right to act at this and other mid-level scales of governance with hardly any challenge. This newly sparked engagement cannot be a bad thing, especially in the long term—unless it drains movement attention and substantial bodies from the still-important demonstration spectacles on the Capitol square. To spell out the dilemma: the fourteen awol Democrat senators are the only thing standing between Scott Walker and his agenda being legally realized, but they can only stay away for as long as there are large daily and occasionally massive demonstrations of support, and realistically, can only stay away until the April 5 election. So the demonstrations must not dilute the campaign messaging, and ideally, need to echo it, but at the same time not be reduced to it. To lose the April 5th election and to fail on the most achieveable recall efforts would, unquestionably, be major defeats.
Finally, there is the spectre of a strike. The truism of labor’s ulimate power being that of withholding its work activity, which in the US context sounded practically meaningless only a month ago, rings with revitalized freshness, given the threats of force and firings being leveled by this governor. But how and when? Who and where? Teachers? Students? Those who are legally granted the right strike, or those who instantly run the risk of being fired? What is the strike supposed to communicate? How does it get organized, and what kinds of practicalities would be involved? Would it be a symbolic one-day strike or a true shut-down of business as usual? The South Central Federation Labor has already endorsed a general strike, so the language is getting out there and these questions coming into play.
Already there are two points of reference, generated by the movement itself. One, during the first week we saw the Madison Public School teachers essentially call a strike without using strike language, shutting down the schools for three days through a massive sick-out. It was a bet that paid off, but only because the message was not primarily about leaving work to protest the budget cuts and attacks on unions; rather, the message was one of love, as in, the teachers love their jobs, schools, and students so much, that they are walking out, and the students love their teachers so much, that they are joining them, and the parents love their children’s teachers so much, that they are supporting them. The message of love is what a proper and possibly general strike must convey—the conservatives have found it impossible to argue against it, and even have professed the same love, to the jeers of the public. And then two, to return to the occupied Capitol, there now exists an actual model of a self-organized society, an example of something that worked. Over the two weeks of occupation, food stations, childcare, clean-up crews, first aid and internal communication structures inside the Capitol were set up as needed. In contemporary America the term mutual aid is tossed around by radicals as a vague, dreamy concept, or else made real through slowly growing limited projects around a given focus of cooperative energy. Here mutual aid became real in a way that was entirely outside of our American experience, as a process of change, spontaneous giving, and practical adjustment, focused on meeting immediate and concrete needs that arose in new situations daily. What happened at the Capitol shows us that the many kinds of support that a strike beyond three days would require *will* materialize, even if in the end it’s neither perfect nor sustainable. Strikers will not be left high and dry by their fellow workers, their neighbors, their friends.
The who and when of a strike is the biggest question. If Scott Walker follows through on his threatened firings of state workers, 1500 or a thousand at a time, for no other reason than to pressure the absent Dem senators into returning from out of state for a vote, then the mood for striking will go up. I suspect the teachers’ union would be the first to declare; if and how other unions respond will be most important. If AFSCME turns scared in that moment and publicly dissociates itself from strike tactics, the battle may be lost. If they merely hold their cards, refusing to say one way or other, then I think the momentum towards a strike will build, especially if there are massive student strikes, too. If any other union joins the teachers with a sympathy strike that goes beyond a short symbolic gesture, then the general strike may indeed be on, especially if the governor reacts with aggression.
1) As expected, national media coverage has been atrocious. While utterly oblivious in some significant and surprising respects, Scott Walker has proven himself a skillful handler of journalists, and nearly impossible to shake from the script. While he’s managed to skew the national media discussion toward the smokescreen of budgetary matters by repeating the same script with each and every appearance, the non-corporate media (just one example: rotundaville) has been disseminated so widely, and the numerous media lies of Walker are so quickly debunked, that Walker’s single and well-practiced strategy is not enough to drive the narrative.
2) After Walker unveiled his bi-annual state budget last Tuesday, new outrage arose from heretofore quiescent parts of the state—particularly in the rural areas and in the urban core. The massive cuts to schools and healthcare he had planned for the budget were based on the first bill passing, which would have freed up county and town governments to do away with their public sector union employee contracts as a way to make up the shortfall in state funding. The governor put off announcing his budget for two weeks, hoping the demonstrations over the “budget repair bill” would die down. They haven’t, and now he’s had to show the whole state exactly what he has in mind for them, thereby digging himself a deeper hole, politically. After three weeks, we can say definitively: Scott Walker has been the greatest gift to the American left since Richard Nixon, and maybe even since Bull Connor.
Here is a little video from Tuesday, March 1, outside the Capitol. At the very moment this was shot, Scott Walker is announcing details of his budget at a press conference inside the building. He packed the media room with a gallery of his corporate supporters, smuggled in through the steam tunnels. He illegally locked out the demonstrators, but couldn't lock out the noise; they could hear us inside.
3) The rural and urban expressions of discontent arrive in Madison this coming weekend. A farmer-organized convoy of tractors is scheduled to demonstrate on the square on the same day that a march of high school students from Milwaukee arrives. These actions come just in time. Even though the past three Saturday demonstrations have turned out massive numbers of protestors, the energy that comes out of a new and unexpected movement is dissipating. The protracted struggle has begun and the anti-Walker constituencies must adjust to the reality of political work without the advantage of novelty. As with the convoy and march, coming up with new storylines is a necessity if we are to maintain visibility as proof of commitment.
4) As the struggle has take a turn for the local, with thousands of activists diving into the minutiae of recall campaigns, dealing with the legalities concerning the fourteen absent Dem senators, and countless other details of hard-slog politicking, the international dimensions are fading from front-line consciousness. As it happens, the main battle from the other side of the globe is no longer a peaceful occupation of Tahrir Square, but a shooting civil war in Libya, complete with hundreds of gruesome deaths, displaced peoples, and a paralysis in international response. Thus, the comparisons no longer suit. But even without convenient parallels that insist on connection, I hope it is not lost to people both inside and outside of Wisconsin, inside and outside of the US—what’s happening in Wisconsin matters to the world, for the following reason. The election last November of Scott Walker along with Ron Johnson’s defeat of Russ Feingold for a Wisconsin US Senate seat were taken by the national GOP as a model and pathway to their future power, so much so that Wisconsin GOP head Reince Priebus was elected to lead the Republican National Committee shortly after, and then Janesville, Wisc., congressman Paul Ryan was granted the slot to respond to Obama’s State of the Union address. Walker is seen as the operations guy, Priebus the strategist, and Ryan the policy brains—the rising star triumvirate of the GOP. Because of their national prominence, if they manage to win the day in Wisconsin, the rest of the world will feel no doubt feel the effects. If we win, we will have struck a blow against all three. How to reinstall the internationalism of the movement's first week under these changed conditions is the challenge.