It was only a week ago that I was sitting in the dark, during the Dark Matter session at CAA, receving a stream of texts about Hosni Mubarak’s infuriating kiss-off to the people of Egypt and the world. The uncertainty of that day and then the jubilation of the next leaked over to where I was, in New York, thousands of miles away from Tahrir Square. While visiting friends, the topic rightly kept circling back to Egypt. How could I know then that a movement would be born right here in my own town square only a few days later?
I only heard about the planned demonstrations on Monday, while I was in Chicago to teach, via Facebook friends Josh and Catherine and progressive cause pages. Monday was mostly a student event, on the order of a thousand or more bodies. Tuesday’s rally was supposed to have more union organizing behind it. By this time word had spread that the governor had already threatened to call out the National Guard if the public workers resisted the measures that, on that day, looked sure to pass into law.
I made it down on that day expecting maybe a thousand people. Instead, the whole corner of the square on the State Street side was full, plus many hundreds inside the Capitol. Citizens flooded the hearings, booking the public debate list for hours and hours at two minutes per person. Madison firefighters showed up in big block with signs reading Firefighters in Support of Labor. Already there were signs making direct reference to ousting dictators, in Egypt and in Wisconsin. Other groups announced themselves to cheers from the crowd, in moving passages. Later estimates put the event numbers between ten and fifteen thousand. Looking back from the end of the week, this was the key day, the day that clearly showed the demonstrators themselves that a nerve had been touched, that we had strength, that a widespread resistance was in the cards, and that the disgust with the governor’s aggression was shared.
Significantly, Tuesday was the first day of action by high school students. Some 800 students walked out of East, joined by a couple hundred each from West and Memorial. Many had permission from their parents, and the affectionate blessings of their teachers, but were basiclly self-organized. How could a jaded adult not be impressed? Come Tuesday evening, as the citizen commentary at the Capitol went deep into the night, the news hit of a likely sick-out by Madison teachers. That went from rumor to an announced district-wide closing of the schools for Wednesday. The sick-out action was matched instantly by the decision of hundreds still in the Capitol—many of them UW students—to stay the night, essentially beginning a round the clock occupation of the rotunda that continues to the moment of this writing. The chain of events, in which various constituencies signaled their commitment to other constituencies through independent action, was underway.
Other unions, student groups, and ordinary people matched this commitment by turning out to the tune of 30k bodies on Wednesday. As the upswing in momentum could not be denied, the situation began attracting national attention that day forward. Legislators were knocked off balance by the raised stakes. From the governor? Silence.
On Thursday there was no let up in the action and energy. The biggest news of the morning was the flight of the Wisconsin Senate Democrats, denying the Senate a quorum. Demonstrators correctly read this turn of events as a result of their continued presence and numbers, coupled with online activism, phone calls, and emails. Rumors went in two directions—that the governor would be dispatching the state police to find and force them back, and that two Republicans went awol, as well. There were many guesses flying around the rest of the day, as the Republican maybe-defectors were not named. Cracks in the Republican front? Hmm….
I noticed two new elements on Thursday. One was the first counter-demonstrator I’d seen. Only one, but I’m sure a herald of things to come. And two, the left-wing protest vultures arrived—sectarian leftists hawking papers and doing their tired schtick. Will this scene, beautiful and open for the first three days, devolve into the usual predictable performed farce of contemporary American protest? This is a new anxiety, not felt until Thursday.
By Thursday evening the game had changed again. Ed Schultz arrived for live broadcasts. Rachel Maddow gave long segments to coverage of the demonstrations. Right wing media began their own spin cycle, putting out non-stop union-bashing language and blaming the selfishness of the teachers for everything from the deficit to the swine flu. President Obama, for whom Madison is a personal base of support, weighed in on the side of the workers, though as is his wont, in blasé tones of general support and room temperature criticisms of Scott Walker. Now it had become a national story, with the symbolic stakes raised to the level of a referendum on the Tea Party agenda and the first post-2010 test of progressive muscle.
Inside the Capitol at midnight on Thursday the energy remained high, with drumming, chanting, students spread out slumber-party style, complete with pajamas and those fuzzy animal hats that somehow look cute when worn by nineteen year-old psychology majors. The interior walls were by this time plastered with posters and signs. Banners of solidarity from other cities, states (Baltimore, Detroit, North Carolina), and countries (Pakistan?!) draped the railings. Former and possibly future Madison mayor Paul Soglin joined the campers, along with more than a few grown-ups and graybeards. At the same time there was an element of uncertainty and that weird mixture of euphoria and fear that comes with breaking established limits. The security presence was minimal, but everybody knew that the order to vacate could come at any time. Throughout the day flyers were distributed outlining the procedures of an order to vacate and the various consequences for disobeying. The inevitable nighttime exhaustion also begged the question—how long can this go on? At what point does Walker bring in the enforcers? And if things continue, what will Week Two look and feel like? It is at this point I gain yet another level of respect for those who occupied Tahrir Square.
A few things are clear:
1) At this point the battle is being fought both in the square and in the media, and the two theaters go together. Control of the narrative must be kept from the right wing noise machine and that means telling the story from the square, with the authority of being here, of seeing and hearing how things are unfolding, of having the confidence that comes with lived experience to tell the dittoheads, very simply, that they are ignorant, clueless, and don’t know what the hell they are talking about.
2) The presence in the square has attained the scale of a movement. Very literally, there are too many pockets of action within the space and time of the square happening for any one person to know. Walking around today, within minutes I witnessed the noisy rally inside the rotunda, the incoming UW student march of 1000s along the State Street side, and the union rally in front of television cameras on the East Washington side. People in the thick of each cluster were oblivious to what was happening in other parts of the square. Not to mention, this was at around 12:30 pm. There had already been a large rally organized by the AFL-CIO at 10 am. Jesse Jackson will speak at 5 pm, and there will be evening rallies, as well.
3) It is the unity of the senate Republicans versus that of the Democrats. Who will divide and conquer first is the question. I’m sure Walker is scheming to buy off one of the Dems, promise that one senator everything in order to get him to sell out the rest, because one vote is all he needs to reach a quorum. On the other hand, there are Republicans spooked by the size and tenor of the demonstrations, and they know that Walker may have overreached to the detriment of their own careers. Targeted pressure will determine the fate of this bill.
4) The reaction is underway, though with how much strength is unknown. A Tea Party organized counter event is scheduled for Saturday noon. Word is spreading for progressive forces to show in overwhelming numbers. If the counter bodies are many—say 5000—there will be tension. If they are pathetically small—say 500 or less—then we must take full advantage and tell the story as proof of the inarguable majority strength of the progressives and the absolute corporate whoredom of the GOP. Provocateurs cannot be ruled out, and given the dirty tricks of the right ever since the ’08 election, probably ought to be expected. People attending need to know who they are with. A little paranoia in times of crisis is not such a bad thing.
5) The movement has a longer term concrete goal, that of recalling Scott Walker. Wisconsin’s recall process is not an easy one. The big challenge is the time limit. From the day the recall effort gets officially filed, we’ll have only 60 days to gather signatures in a number set as a proportion of the total votes in the last gubernatorial election. The current battle lays the groundwork for that effort better than anything else could have done. Many signs among demonstrators make reference to the option, and there are people coordinating already, in preparation for Walker’s first year anniversary, at which time the campaign can begin.
6) The creativity and humor has been impressive. Demonstrators are entertaining each other, showing each other their inventiveness, and making the square the place to be. That alone makes this a resistance of a different, more promising kind.