While conservative assaults on anything with the word ‘public’ in front of it proliferate around the states of the American midwest and beyond, the struggle in Wisconsin continues. In its non-response to Scott Walker’s declaration of war on the evening of March 10, the unions absorbed a defeat even as the movement energy turned to legal and electoral fronts. How much of this defeat can be rolled back on the electoral terrain is an unanswered question, but the very least we can say is, the damage inflicted by Walker’s bill will likely never be undone in full, even if Democrats manage to retake control of the state senate, the state assembly, and the governor’s mansion. The primary reason being, they are Democrats. In anycase, the struggle has entered a protracted and highly localized phase. Even though things continue to develop—just yesterday a Dane County judge put a temporary restraining order on the authoring of Walker’s bill, thereby halting it from taking effect as law just yet—it is an apt moment to ask questions that had been put aside by the month-long maelstrom of events.
Nicolas Lampert, Erin Stalnaker, and I are currently composing a text reviewing the first phase of the struggle and that will among other things dissect what we see as the March 10 failure, so I will hold off on discussing that episode for now. Instead, let’s consider the question of place. Why Madison? In Tunisia, Sidi Bouzid was the town of the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, who became a movement martyr. In Madison there was no individual act of heroic, dramatic resistance as a precipitating event. Instead, it was collective offense and collective outrage. First a thousand people, then 15k, then 30k, then at least three consecutive Saturdays of near or over 100k, four straight weeks of demonstrations, plus an extended occupation of the Capitol. All in a second-tier city that would probably strike any distant observer as equally obscure compared to the other sites of global uprising from the past several months.
If it is true that under the auspices of globalization, if you look hard enough at what is right around you, you will see the whole world, then Madison is one of those places where you don’t have to look very hard; the city suffers from a conceit of cosmopolitanism, a scene where sporting Guatemalan pants or quaffing Belgian lambic can be passed off for consciousness. Needless to say, in normal times this tendency is irritating to the critical eye. But in extraordinary times the substance behind the superficiality does make a difference. For example, Madison is a favorite stop for national leftwing figures, always supplying them a reliable audience. So when Chomsky wrote this short analysis for Truthout in which he links the Cairo and Madison movements, he’s thinking about a town he’s been to regularly over the years—in both 2009 and 2010 he lectured to a packed house at the Orpheum Theatre. Even better, this profile of a local boy who’d gone on to report from Tahrir Square for Al-Jazeera was published on February 8, mere days before the Wisconsin uprising broke. The internationalist awareness of the local populace worked to the movement’s advantage over the first week in the many echoes of Cairo, and then all the way through to the Ian’s phenomenon, before fading as the political narrative split into different storylines. Whether and how that internationalism will be re-injected into the language of the movement is unknown, but internationalist terms remain as a potential advantage and cannot be erased for as long as the movement’s demonstration element is sited primarily in Madison.
Perhaps more importantly, just about every constituency that Scott Walker antagonized in his short tenure on the statewide stage is present in Madison. The teachers and public sector workers, of course, but also the environmentalists, who were dealt the dual slap of a hostile appointee to head the state Department of Natural Resources and the axing of a new biofuels power plant conversion project. Poor people's services, already slim from past attacks, were put on notice for draconian cuts, angering the whole social service establishment, not to mention the people who use services. Mass transit and anti-sprawl advocates got theirs when the governor-elect declared that he wouldn't accept federal stimulus money for rail development between Madison and Milwaukee. Therefore, as soon as the unions were kicked into action, plenty of the local citizenry instantly knew the common enemy.
Pedaling downtown from my home on Madison’s West Side for a show on a warm summer night, it is six miles of easy slopes along Lake Mendota. Getting there early, I take a stroll up State Street and around the square. Students in town for the summer are out entertaining themselves with burgers, candy, and ice cream while their professors dine out for Nepali food. A man with a guitar who resembles the other man with a guitar a little further down the street, tunes his beat-up instrument while arguing with somebody about nothing in particular. On my way up towards the square, coming the other way are a few small packs of drinkers who have strayed out of the sticky beerhalls zone at the campus end of State Street. Near the steps of the Capitol a homeless gentleman makes his bed, as do others in spacious intervals along the square. It is very still, just slightly more peaceful than sterile. A few patrons of upscale locavore restaurants stroll to and from their car parks. The occasional cop zips by on a bicycle against the lit-up Capitol dome, under which a couple of teens puff on the lawn. Hardly noticed but playing roles we can only imagine, a lone suit working late—a capitol aide, lawyer, or lobbyist—crosses the square from office to condo. After the show at the Orpheum or the Majestic or the Frequency, I munch a fresh donut at the Greenbush Bakery to fuel my return passage through the quiet dark streets and leafy bikepaths, far from the turmoil of the world. ~
The idyllic life that is or was a kind of norm in Madison could be described for that same summer evening in probably three dozen ways, depending on your hobbies (knitting…or kayaking?), tastes (artisanal brews), and budget (state worker classification). Because Madison is that placid kind of midwestern town, well-educated, competently governed, economically stable, full of intelligent diversions—which is to say, it is not a normal place at all. It is a Rust Belt city enjoying the trappings of a modest twentieth-century affluence while hundreds of cities, towns, and villages throughout the region deal with economies that have gone down the greased chute of globalization, leaving behind wrecked communities. It is the comparatively intact economy and communities of Madison, and the peculiar abnormalities of Madison thus made possible, that are worth considering after the events of the past five weeks.
In relation to how the movement materialized over the first two weeks of the uprising, the most important fact about Madison is its management as a people’s city, as opposed to a police state. Madisonites take it for granted, but nearly all the out of state visitors I met mentioned the unbelievably low and casual police presence, especially over the first two weeks. For example, when I ran into Brooklyn-based activist artist Jim Costanzo on the steps of the Capitol on the second Tuesday, nearly a week into the occupation, he declared the action around us impossible to imagine happening in New York because of the security priorities. On another night in the occupied capitol I met a UWUA staffer named Mark Brooks from Nashville who came to see for himself what was going on. One of the first things he said was, this slumber party/occupation could never happen in Tennessee. The police simply wouldn’t allow it. Speaking about policing from a Chicago perspective, where the cops routinely line avenues wearing $700 worth of hardshell riot gear to contain depressingly small antiwar marches, I can say that by comparison Madison has indeed fended off the pressure to militarize America’s police forces.
There are reasons for this. One, the Madison Police Department is as committed to a trust-based and non-confrontational philosophy as any department in the country. Two, it is a comparatively well-educated force. And three, by a long stretch the main public security threat in Madison revolves around massive numbers of out-of-control drunk college football fans on six Saturdays a year, plus the regular party atmosphere in the drinking district. The Madison police are professionals who deal with drunken fights, falls, sexual assaults, vandalism, and alcohol poisoning all the time. Demonstrations at the Capitol are nothing compared to the puke-fests going down on the other end of State Street three nights a week. Even in terms of outside agitators, it is the bars that attract the out of town rabble, not the demonstrations. The city police know this, and so does county law enforcement.
The consciousness of the police and county sheriff bled over into sympathy for the forces opposed to Walker at a pretty early point, thus depriving the governor of a ready onsite tool of enforcement. In time both Chief Noble Wray and Sheriff Jim Mahoney publicly questioned and/or criticized the governor, speaking from their perspective as public security professionals. Their statements damaged the governor, further (and correctly) painting him as a hyper-partisan extremist, and reinforced the broad unity of public opposition. So when right wing outsiders were baffled by Walker’s tolerance of the occupation, they did not understand that in Madison the police have different and more intelligent priorities, unlike in most other places and unlike the authoritarian law enforcement most Americans now accept.
The lesson is, building the conditions for large social movements that can assemble in spectacular masses includes working on civilizing your local police.
Another thing about Madison is its progressive and countercultural infrastructure, and latent political potential. The latter was put on display last fall by a thirty-six year-old Green Party candidate, Ben Manski, in making a serious first run for the open state assembly seat representing the West Side, and who has since performed as one of the voices of the movement in media appearances. But it's been long term labor that laid the foundations. Over a couple of generations at least, people in Madison have built up a functioning network of co-ops and enlightened businesses, a healthy local alternative media in print, radio, and online, several locally-based but internationally networked progressive organizations, and thriving local cultures of both food and biking. This infrastructure is maintained and used by a population of grad students, educators, sort-of-creative types, and lots of people who work secure, moderately-compensated state jobs, folding a degree of everyday activism into a large proportion of Madison's population. On the whole, this is a city population that has, compared to the big city rat racers, a good deal of free time. To put it negatively, Madison is one of those enclaves where “artist” is not a meaningful professional category, the local currency project trades heavily in bodywork, and an awful lot of residents seem to have the time and narcissism to “work” on themselves.
But as my friend Chris B once said, as pathetic as the prospect may be, the hippie freeks just might be humanity’s last and best hope. By essentially hosting the Wisconsin uprising, the hippie element of Madison did in fact prove its worth. Without the laid back vibe and good humor, the anger might have gotten out of control. Without the easy generosity expressed in a thousand little ways (I did my part early on with a midnight delivery of five dozen donuts to the occupied rotunda—the pleasure is truly in the giving), the welcome would have stayed theoretical. And most importantly, it was the people of Madison, dedicated and available, who kept the attendance of the weekday rallies at respectable and sometimes very impressive numbers for four weeks, in between the massive weekend rallies. Different unions bused in people from Milwaukee and other parts of the state for a day at a time, but without the thousands of local people going down to the square multiple days a week and often a couple of times a day, with many temps in the 20˚/-6˚ range, the movement would not have gained the respect that durability commands. Even Scott Walker had hoped at first to wait out the demonstrations, but in the end could not.
Now that the demonstrations are winding down and the epicentric role of Madison takes a backseat to the statewide April 5 election for Wisconsin Supreme Court, the dispersed recall campaigns, and the wider battles around the region, for people who live in Madison one question is, what will be the lasting effects on our city of this historic uprising? Will the nascent police state patched together by Scott Walker to maintain control of the Capitol building become a permanent feature of our town? Is it a foothold for the militarization trend that has been thus far successfully avoided? What special sorts of punitive measures will the conservatives aim at the city of Madison? Will the events of the past few weeks open opportunities to bring the segregated communities of Madison—all of which will suffer under the Walker agenda—into substantive contact? How will the Gen Y students—grad, undergrad, and high school—who played powerful roles and gained real political experience, move forward as young, radicalized adults facing much greater personal uncertainties than those before them? Are we seeing the beginning of their generational moment?
Although nothing in this struggle has been settled with finality, I can say that the old “normal” of Madison, if it never comes back, won’t be much missed. It is like what Rich Feldman said about the so-called economic recovery—the recovery the pundits keep talking about, and so much of officialdom presents as desirable, is basically imperialism. Scott Walker’s attacks have revealed what used to be normal as a temporary mirage. It lasted for decades, but it was temporary nonetheless. If Madison was a pocket of comfort, health, and freedom, in the continuing unfolding of the global crisis of capitalism that pocket has been turned out. Over the last four weeks, and really just in time, the people of Madison, in a big way, rejoined the people of Detroit, Fort Wayne, Rockford, Saginaw, and the rest of the settlements of the midwest in our regional front in the global class war.
My last note on Madison in the Wisconsin uprising is a parable of sorts. While we were out battling the Walker agenda on the square and in the Capitol, the power of volunteerism, enlightened consumerism, best retail practices, and the cancerous business models of corporate America came home in the news that Borders would be shutting down its Madison store. So for a short while I allowed myself to relish the difference between this,
the window of Avol's Books, one of Madison's independent bookstores, and this.
There are those who believe that the death of any bookstore is reason to mourn. I disagree. But the thrill of our independents outlasting the deep pocketed growth/choke out strategy of the big box chains is only tempered by the knowledge that the independents remain precarious. The latest and most serious threat to an independent bookstore happens to involve our very own Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative. Please support them.