We are into phase two.
The massive crowds of 15-30k on the weekdays and 75-150k on four consecutive Saturdays have dispersed. Now the people are spread out, working the ground of the entire state in a multi-pronged strategy of electoral canvassing, working recall campaigns, bird-dogging Republican state senators and the governor himself wherever they go, organizing targeted protests, coherently and incoherently boycotting businesses that are said to have a Walker association, or simply lashing out in hundreds and maybe thousands of acts of primitive resistance, ranging from wheatpasting General Strike posters on utility boxes to gluing locks. Wisconsin is alive, electric with political activism and political expression, both organized and not. Window and yard signs blanket the neighborhoods of the hippie east and the bobo west sides of Madison. In Milwaukee, joint union/teacher/immigrant rights actions are being planned. Nine hundred people marched in the little town of Mt. Horeb a couple weeks ago, which is more amazing than 100k in Madison. Our new adoption worker, a woman just starting out in her social services career, showed up on our doorstep smiling and professional, but sporting bright blue and yellow anti-Walker buttons. The bus driver wears a button that says Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Republican. Many at the Stoughton Opera House for Friday night’s Tim O’Brien show (high quality white music, for the unfamiliar) wore Kloppenburg buttons.
The political inhibitions of the average Wisconsinite, only two months ago seemingly internalized to the degree that politics had become a subculture rather than everyone’s business, have evaporated, steamed off by the extreme attacks of Scott Walker. The political has returned to Wisconsin, to everyday life, to people’s expressions in both private and public spheres. And just in time, because it is not too early to call a victory for Scott Walker. More on that below.
But first I continue my inquiry into the conditions of the uprising. What has been happening, at the various distances of the local, the regional, and the global, that the Walker agenda began to generate a kind of oppositional coherence, a broad sense of belonging to a current far beyond oneself, or one’s town, or one’s country? On this blog I have already discussed both the local and the global, how the Madison infrastructure and the international echoes of Cairo played into the uprising. From where I type this, both of these elements continue to be present. Last Wednesday evening I attended the Chris Hedges event on the UW campus. After being out of town for nearly two weeks, I was curious about what I’d see. The lecture was held in Humanities 2650, a room that seats 268. There were hardly any empty seats and quite a few standing in the upper reaches of the hall. People came out on a crummy, cold and icy night—a good sign that interest and motivation remains high at the grassroots level. The energy in the room was lively and Hedges ended up taking questions for an hour after a thirty-five minute lecture. Whether we are talking about movement analysis events organized by the Havens Center, immigrant rights groups working to fight Walker’s cuts to bilingual education, the neighborhood bars hosting benefits for interfaith labor justice projects, or the Dane County administration and judicial establishment standing up to the GOP’s legally questionable manuveurs, the Madison activist and progressive infrastructure is humming.
As well, the global echoes—drowned out and overshadowed for weeks by everything from the disaster in Japan to attention on the Wisconsin 14 and the villanous Koch brothers—reappeared on the fifth Saturday, in all-too tragically convenient a way: the massive demonstrations that were sparked by Scott Walker’s attack on the day Hosni Mubarak resigned came to a close on March 19, both the eighth anniversary of the bombing that started the Iraq War in 2003, and the first day of American and European bombing of Libya. If the War at Home/Wars Abroad meme had been shoved aside for a little while, history will always neatly bookend the first phase of the Wisconsin uprising in the wrapping of a single global class and energy war, and the beginning of generalized global chaos. Lots of us, including Iraq Veterans Against the War, who called for the March 19 Madison demonstration and came out in a force of more than fifty GWOT veterans, would not have it any other way.
So, we have the local and the global. What about the movement dynamic at the state and regional level? Or put another way, why Wisconsin, and why now? Sure, it is a comparatively homogenous state, with a strong and distinctive tavern culture, a single, statewide university system, and self-embraced customs of beer + brats, dairy + deer hunting. But what of the conditions in early 2011? What was different then?
Having made something of the echoes of Cairo, I must say, the story of the 2010-2011 Green Bay Packers also helped to set a kind of pre-uprising climate in Wisconsin, because of how they reached and won the Super Bowl, the kinds of storylines that spun out of the team’s postseason run, and the fact that the Super Bowl was played on the Sunday of the same week in which Scott Walker later unveiled his budget repair bill. Given the event proximity, two of those storylines resonated with the Wisconsin uprising of a week later. The first concerned the Packers as an institution. When the Packers take the national stage, the national media enjoy re-telling the story of why and how the comparatively small city of Green Bay, Wisconsin (pop. 102k), happened to land and hold onto the most storied of all NFL franchises. This happened in the old media world of January of 1997 when the Packers last reached and won the big game, and it happened again in 2011. The surprise ending part of the story goes, little Green Bay keeps its team because it is… (drumroll) publicly owned! The merits of public ownership and non-majority ownership clauses are then held up for consideration as an historical quirk that actually works—unlike the failure of private ownership, for example, to currently supply Los Angeles with an NFL team. The merits of public ownership are then brought into the national conversation, in however superficial a way. For Packer fans, who like most midwesterners are more self-conscious than their coastal countrymen about how they are perceived by the bi-coastal media/cultural establishment, it is another reason to take pride in who they are, and another media-reflected self-image around which the trace of a collective identity coalesces.
The second important storyline emerged in full as soon as the championship game was over. Starting the day after the big game, sports talk radio chatter turned the topic from post-game analysis to the negotiations between the NFL owners and the NFL players association, a looming millionaire-versus-billionaire labor showdown that cast a shadow over the whole season and now finally took center stage. The contentiousness between the two parties got football fans everywhere considering the possibility of a canceled season or watching scab teams. If nothing else, this situation (which weeks later hangs in a stalemate due to the owners locking out the players) imposed a discourse of labor politics on a wide swath of the football-watching population. A great many apolitical fans are being forced to think about the fact that labor conflict exists. And once engaged, a lot of fans see the players as reasonable given their concerns about things like cumulative head injuries and the owners refusal to disclose their profits. Here in Wisconsin, it didn’t hurt the image of the players association that the Super Bowl MVP, Aaron Rodgers, the latest player to reach Packer greatness, is also the team’s union rep. Finally, there were the two Super Bowl XLV competitors, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers, each club named after the twentieth-century workers associated with those towns, and each club bucking the labor-bosses faultline—the Packers with their aforementioned anomalous shared ownership and the Steelers with their outspoken owner, Dan Rooney, who has openly complained about the greed of his fellow owners. The fact that both teams had this vestigial identification with the working man, and whose current ownership didn’t fit the venal role played so well by that of other NFL clubs, and yet had risen to the top of the competitive hierarchy by beating everybody else on the field, dispelled the claim that labor-friendly relations lead to a decline in quality and performance. If anything, these two teams proved that the opposite is true.
So this whole NFL thing, with the Packers as newly crowned champs after an improbable, attention-getting run of four straight do-or-die victories (not including the final game), has been running parallel to the Wisconsin uprising. At times it crossed over, with some Packer players, including star cornerback and team co-captain Charles Woodson, tweeting statements in support of the Wisconsin state workers. The Sunday, March 19 NYTimes sports section featured an article on the NFL lockout and its effects on the town of Green Bay. It was the first post-uprising piece on the Packers I’d seen, and it necessarily mentioned the political turmoil of the state—not the usual thing for sports journalism.
On the question of spatial scale, the Packers reinforce state identity as a constituency, because in Wisconsin the Packers are regarded as belonging to the entire state and not just the city of Green Bay, literally owned by thousands of shareholders around the state, and Packer fandom is practically a secular religion binding together far-flung Wisconsinites, including those of the Wisconsin diaspora. Also interestingly, of all the population centers in Wisconsin, Madison is the least Packer-crazy town. Too many transients, hoity intellectuals, and Chicago transplants, plus a fan focus on the University of Wisconsin teams. So the NFL and Packer storylines spoke more directly to the people of Wisconsin outside of liberal Madison than inside, helping to generalize the politicized climate of labor strife to the far corners of the state. Even more than that, the Super Bowl underlined a fundamental turn in consciousness that informs any political uprising, anywhere. And that turn happens when an angry people wanting to do something become aware, and then are self-confident enough to tell themselves, “Why not us, and why not here—after all, we are somebody, we are somewhere.”
Not to overplay any of these factors—the Packers, Cairo, the built-in activism of Madison—but taken together, they all mattered, they all reinforced the tide. Then, as a movement imprinted with the stamp of multiple places, signaling a simultaneous belonging, echoes of it could be heard in other places. Demonstrators in Albany on March 23 chanted “Wisconsin, New York—the struggle is the same!” Last week a solidarity event in LA drew more than ten thousand people and featured Wisconsin firefighter’s union president Mahlon Mitchell, one of the scores of new leaders to have emerged in the course of the last six weeks. Activists in Michigan have measured the smaller demonstrations there against what happened in Wisconsin, trying to ascertain the different limits under which a nascent Michigan movement toils. Movements sited in and identified by place, whether that place is first thought of as a city, a state, a country, or a region, are doing the work of validating the movements of other places. We have learned from the world social forum strategy from the past decade. No more summit hopping. We work where we happen to find ourselves, but build into the process a sending and receiving of signals from other places.
More to say about Wisconsin, good and bad, besides the Packer thing, but moving on….
Let me end this post by addressing the state of the movement, in bullet points.
- Now it is clear that the story of the fourteen senate Democrats who fled the state in order to stall the passage of Walker’s bill stands in danger of overwriting the earlier heroism of the grassroots. Had not the Madison teachers, public school students, firefighters union, the Teaching Assistants Association, a goodly number of undergraduate students and lots of independent citizens stuck their necks out in the days leading up to the Flight of the Fourteen. And yet through all their hero’s welcome, not one of them has given full credit to the strategy of peaceful, legal escalation that gave them the opportunity to take dramatic action with full confidence of widespread support. Even worse are their exhortations to support the Democrats, exclusive of the many elements making up the backbone of this movement. As the struggle continues through a protracted phase without further massively unifying attacks by the GOP, the splits between Democrats and the grassroots will widen.
- Walker won. His bill is still not clearly law, but he’s not waiting around for any court decision to implement it, even though every move he makes toward implementing it further muddies the legalities. And the question of political payback remains highly motivating, and there are plenty of deserving targets, not only Walker himself. Through electoral politics we will end the careers of at least a few, and make life at times miserable for the rest through all manner of activist confrontation. But the fact is, we will live with a seriously degraded state bureaucracy and a dysfunctional state government, and a horribly unbalanced state budget for years to come. Undoing the damage will be monumental task beyond the capacities of the Democrats. Thus, one of the high points of the liberal state structure—twentieth-century American Upper Midwestern state government, effective, professional, and mostly non-partisan—in Wisconsin is definitively no more. Time to roll up our sleeves, grab a tool, and start planting or building whatever it is that we want to grow.
- The movement response to the March 9 surprise assault by Walker and his state senate minions remains unexamined. Surprising, when one considers the fact that we know the day and even the moment the movement lost the battle over Walker’s bill. But perhaps not so surprising when we consider the unpalatable truths such a examination would reveal. To begin with, the failure to meaningfully respond begs the question, where, exactly, the union interests lie? If the rank and file’s willingness to strike was overridden by the leadership, that is one thing, complete with an ugliness all its own. But what if the basic conservatism of the unions crouched in a defensive posture stands at cross purposes with those of us looking ahead to a different world? In other words, what if, as Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs would say, a job ain’t the answer? Even though the various unions took all different kinds of heroic and historic action over the last six weeks, I can’t help but point out that the visionary element is completely missing from the union side, and the lost opportunity of March 9 showed us the price of accumulating power, even oppositional power, without vision. Nicolas, Erin, and I are working up a fuller treatment of March 9. Will post when it’s ready.