the sunday after wednesday’s attack and saturday’s masses

by Dan S Wang and fellow citizens of the Midwest Radical Culture Corridor

This past Saturday’s demonstrations brought 150,000 people out in Madison. But unlike the celebratory mood on previous Saturdays, this was a comparatively somber day. It had to be. After Scott Walker rammed his “budget repair” bill through three days earlier, down the throats of the public, even if possibly in violation of more than one law, by Saturday the fact had settled in. Scott Walker had called labor’s bluff and labor did nothing, at least not immediately.

He and the top state senate Republican, Scott Fitzgerald, then went into good cop/bad cop mode, with Walker speaking his reassuring words while Fitzgerald continued to deride all elements of the opposition, especially his Democrat senate colleagues. Either voice by itself would be irritating enough; as a coordinated follow-through to their manuveur, it galls like a hard poke from a momentarily triumphant inferior.

Late into Wednesday night and all day Thursday, angry strike chatter filled the tweet and comment threads. Student walk-outs were floated for Friday, but no union called a strike, and no wildcat strikes erupted. Scott Walker’s move was a dare to the workers. Go ahead, strike, and see what happens, he seemed to be saying. The union leadership studied the situation in emergency meetings and decided against it. Given the lack of strike funds, the likelihood of being fired, and the possibility of public support evaporating behind a work stoppage, there were in fact good reasons for refraining from striking.

The unfortunate thing is, the emotional momentum that would carry a strike forward as a real weapon of disruption, similar to how the occupation of the Capitol had brought forth a previously unknown community of support, is now lost. A strike still may be called eventually, but now it can only be a symbolic strike, a one-day affair with no real power. A disruptive strike, as a premeditated action, will surely lose public support, and therefore is off the table, unlike the spontaneous or immediate strikes that could have happened, and would have been, by contrast, driven by the emotion of the events rather than the political calculations of the leadership.

So where does this leave the Wisconsin uprising? Back home in Madison late on Friday, Sam Gould, Jerome Grand, and I worked up a flyer to pass out on Saturday, discussing this situation. We got about 400 out by hand, a drop in the bucket of 150k bodies, but nonetheless a real attempt to have people reflect on our options and opportunities at this time. It was heartening to see many, many signs supporting the Kloppenburg candidacy. To me, this showed that the April 5 election is widely recognized as the next urgent battle, and our next best chance to land a blow on the Walker regime.

The text of our flyer:

We will

always remember

who fired

the first shot 

in the      

class war  

 
As one of our comrades declared on the evening of Wednesday, March 9, 2011, we will always remember who fired the first shot in the class war. On that night the Republican Party of Wisconsin, led by Governor Scott Walker, played the hardliner card. No more pretending. 

After a night of loud protest in Madison, on Thursday the most aggressive part of the so-called budget repair bill—that which strips public sector workers of their right to collectively bargain—was passed by the state assembly. Walker signed the bill, rescinded his layoff notices, and now puts on a happy face, telling everybody to go along with it, that he knows better than anyone how hard the medicine is, but never fear, it is for the good of all. Arrogance is apparently a requirement for the new generation of conservative ideologues.

So even as we prepare for and attend the largest demonstration we can possibly muster for Saturday, we must at the same time consider the reality. This first phase of the struggle—heroic, inspiring, and creative in many respects—is drawing to a close. They won.

But the war is far from settled.

Their opening victory and our setback took place even as the next three fronts open up in full. They are:

The April 5 elections for Wisconsin Supreme Court. That is right around the corner.
Challenges to the legality of the new law. The day Walker signed the bill, Dane County filed a suit to block the enactment of the bill. Other lawsuits may follow.
Recall campaigns, already underway for state senators, and less than a year from now for Scott Walker.
Of the three fronts, the most pressing is the April 5 election. JoAnne Kloppenburg must be elected. David Prosser, who has already declared his intention to support the Walker agenda from the bench, must be defeated. The current court is split 4-3, with a conservative majority. We have the opportunity to overturn the balance. The term for a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice is ten years. Both candidates have accepted public funding for their campaigns and therefore cannot accept donations of funds from individuals. But you can help the Kloppenburg campaign through volunteering, spreading the word, and most of all, voting and making sure your friends and family in Wisconsin vote, too.

The legal challenges are mostly out of the hands of the grassroots. But here again, the April 5 election matters, because many of these laws will be decided by the courts. A vote for Kloppenburg is a vote against Walker!

The recall campaigns need all the help they can get, both in terms of funds and volunteer labor. The sixty day countdown is already down to less than fifty. Being specific to senate districts, all of them depend on the committed activism—and voting!—of local citizens. But there is no precedent for a tide of recall campaigns on this scale. By seeing these recall campaigns through to their ends, with focus and dedication, our movement can make history again.

To sum up this short analysis of where we are at, the utility of the demonstrations is fading. We in the movement must pivot; the electoral campaigns on the horizon can stop and/or undo the Walker attacks, but will depend on grassroots engagement of a level similar to that which went into the demonstrations. And it needs to happen now—both the April 5 election and the recall campaigns are sprints already underway. Many of you have attended demonstrations repeatedly and regularly over the first phase. Let’s apply the lesson from that experience to the next phase of the struggle: how do we build into our regular lives the political work that is now needed?

Scott Walker is counting on us forgetting this ever happened. He and his people will do everything they can to both rewrite history and distract. In addition to their manipulation, we’ll have to combat the natural distraction of the corporate media. This is the challenge as we move into the protracted phase of the struggle.

Electoral politics are not fun, not glamorous, and there is no guarantee that retaking control of the senate or the governor’s office will result in the undoing of the Walker agenda. This is not a philosophical argument for electoral engagement, only a view to what is immediately ahead for us. After April 5 and the recall campaigns, there will be yet more and different things to do. A culture of resistance, with variable tactics and a diversity of engagements, is what we are building. Let’s keep on building it together, in Wisconsin and around America—because we will always remember.

—Your fellow citizens of the Midwest Radical Culture Corridor

http://prop-press.typepad.com/blog/2011/03/the-sunday-after-wednesdays-attack-and-saturdays-masses.html

WI: Report Back 3

by Dan S. Wang

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?! 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.

Other points:

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. 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.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.

Dan Wang: Report Back from WI

second report on the wisconsin movement by Dan S. Wang February 23, 2011

‘I tell the story from where I left off. That was last Friday afternoon, February 19.’ http://prop-press.typepad.com/blog/2011/02/second-report-on-the-wisconsin-movement.html

The situation at that moment: Madison public schools shut down for three days due to student walk-outs and teacher sick-outs. From Tuesday on, there had been big turnouts of union workers, high school students, university students, graduate students, nurses, firefighters, teachers, a great many public school parents, police, and all manner of supporters. Senate Democrats were still out of state, denying Walker a quorum. Jesse Jackson spoke to a crowd of thousands at the evening rally, marking the beginning of a procession of national figures to descend on Madison.

The word all that day and into the night was that the first organized Scott Walker support rally was scheduled for the next day, Saturday, from noon to three on the square. The rally for conservatives was being put together by tiny but well-heeled right-wing groups Americans for Prosperity, the Wisconsin GrandSons of Liberty, some small Tea Party groups, and who knows who else. The conservatives were already using the event as infowar—bloggers and event announcers described the Saturday counter-demo as showing the world Wisconsin’s real majority. This was a direct challenge to the six day-old movement on the level of visible numbers, bodies in the street and in the Capitol. With no new development from the governor’s office or the legislators, Saturday’s rallies would be the next chapter in the unfolding story.

The Friday evening messages flying around the part of the anti-Walker universe that is visible to me made a single point: Saturday’s turnout had to be massive. The Wisconsin movement had to write the narrative by outnumbering the conservatives 10-1 or 20-1, precluding any possibility for the story to be told without mentioning the crushing imbalance, especially given that the national media were by this day fully engaged.

The pro-labor/pro-education forces met the test. By the time we got there at noon the entire paved area of the square was filled with anti-Walker people, the inner sidewalks and the outer (more sparsely), and some of the lawn areas, plus, we cannot forget, the several thousand (still!) inside the Capitol. The rally for conservatives, organized under the banner I Stand With Walker, by contrast, gathered in the interior part of the square, well inside the corner of Main and Pinckney, and didn’t even fill it.  Even inside the mass of bodies assembled in front of the Tea Party stage, there were anti-Walker and pro-education/pro-worker signs visible. The right wing turnout would be generously granted at a thousand. The progressive side had to have been at least 70,000, and that was the estimate of the police. The space filled by bodies was more than twice that of Thursday and Friday, when estimates were at 30,000.

To give you a sense of the difference, see this video that Ben Manski shared on social media. As he says, the stationary crowd standing in front of the stage is the Tea Party rally, but there were conspicuous anti-Walker sign holders in there, too. The rest of the square, all the way around, and packing the other three corners are all us. On this day the Wisconsin movement transcended protest and became a phenomenon, something that draws attention just because one wants to see for themselves what this thing is. In this case the point of curiosity centers around whether this assemblage is as mainstream as the images depict it. Saturday proved that you don’t get 70,000 people together in the street in Wisconsin without it being a picture of America.

Later on Saturday the rumor circulated that some doctors from UW Health had made it known that they were willing to sign illness excuse forms for teachers who continued to demonstrate. Slate reports that over the weekend one or more doctors actually set up a station near the square to write doctor’s notes for any demonstrator who asked for one. Because of the dishonesty involved and the standards of integrity doctors are held to, the episode attracted a fair bit of shaming by right wing observers and prompted calls for an investigation. I prefer to interpret the action as a continuation of the domino-effect of different groups and constituencies taking the initiative to share risk, in support of one another, in real solidarity. And it is not a stretch. The doctors know that Badger Care and Medicaid are in line on the chopping block, which greatly hurting their poorest patients, not to mention the public school cuts that will hurt their own children.

Sunday turned out to be a day of rest, relatively. The weather was crummy, all day and night, cold sleet and freezing rain. Though rallies were announced, there were many fewer demonstrators. But for those who showed up, there was the Capitol, so for another day and night, the rotunda was kept occupied with people and energy. Medea Benjamin, having just returned from visiting Tahrir Square in Cairo during the crucial last days of the movement that toppled Mubarak, spent the night with demonstrators in the Capitol and reports on it here, especially the echoes of Egypt she sees and hears in Madison. What they portend, and how those echoes reverberate, and who else hears them, are all questions worth considering. My favorite Egypt reference so far: a super minimalist sign that read very simply, 18 DAYS.

On Monday the public school students and teachers returned to class in Madison. In Milwaukee, it was a President’s Day holiday for Milwaukee Public Schools. That and the fact that Monday was a state worker furlough day, made bodies available for yet another day. Jesse Jackson walked with Madison East high school students in the morning, leading his preach/chant call-and-response with them (“Say this, I AM!” I am! “Somebody!” Somebody!). Tom Morello played a show for the unions on Monday evening. Reverend Billy Talen was scheduled to appear on Tuesday. While the right wing blogosphere fulminates against the Obama administration for having been the architects of this uprising (needless to day, their imaginations are working overtime), it seems now that the left wing establishment and celebrity pool is trying to catch up with and support this locomotive of dissent, lest they miss it.

Tuesday’s rallies went on as routine, almost. Again, morning and evening, and plenty of milling around in between. Unlike the festive atmosphere of last week, this was quieter but conversational. The square had become a space for political discussion, strangers talking to strangers, looking toward the uncertain future together. I spoke to metal workers from Milwaukee who told me about Walker’s disasterous tenure as county executive there. I spoke with a UW custodian and a retired guy who came down from Menomonie. And then there were these two women, doing their part to change the conversation from the GOP-manufactured budget crisis to what this is really about:

The proliferating solidarities hit at least three more high points from Saturday to today. The first was the viral image of Muhammed Saladin Nasair holding his now famous sign. Wisconsinites lapped up the gift of symbolism and association, but up until this pic circulated there had not been any indication that people in Egypt could hear or see us, or that our fight mattered to them. This image sent a good many demonstrators into elation—it showed us that translocal communication, bringing movements closer together, could happen. This was quickly followed by news of Ian’s Pizza becoming a receiving station for out of town donations—hundreds of orders—to the demonstrators, including a few pies paid for by somebody in Egypt. By Tuesday, the Capitol rotunda is decorated with pizza boxes repurposed into signs.

The second high point followed weekend rumors of the Capitol police possibly readying to execute an order to vacate the building. The word was that Walker is taking right wing heat for not having already cleaned house, for letting the disorder get out of hand. Madison area firefighters, themselves exempt from the provisions in the bill that would strip collective bargaining, responded dramatically to the rumors by coming to camp out with the students on Monday night, nearly sixty of them. Supposedly, they intend to be an overnight protest presence for the duration, thereby setting up the potentially uncomfortable image of police evicting the firefighters should the governor order them out. Whether all the police would even obey the orders might even be a real question. The firefighters are putting their reputations and prestige on the line for the others even though nobody asked them to. It is impressive.

And then there was Tuesday morning. On my way down to the square I checked into WORT’s noontime discussion on, of course, the movement. Lena Taylor, one of the fourteen absent Democratic senators, was on the phone from somewhere in Illinois. While on the air, she said that she had just received a text confirming that the House Democrats of the Indiana legislature had, like the Wisconsin 14, fled to Illinois in order to deny the Republican majority a quorum. The radio host and studio guests let out a cheer. There’s only one thing better than solidarity. Contagion.

Observations:

1)   On the “echoes of Egypt” question—yes, it is real. Scott Walker’s bill was a carefully coordinated effort, as evidenced by the fact that supportive television ads aimed at demonizing the unions were aired the day the bill was unveiled. Clearly, the frontal assault was planned in advance. Nonetheless, he and his masters, for all their money and tactical thinking, have showed their almost unbelievable blind spots, chief among them, having made their opening attack on the SAME day that Hosni Mubarak resigns. You don’t openly threaten a Wisconsin workforce with the National Guard in the very moment that a three-decade-old dictatorship in a big country (that the world media has been following for more than two weeks) goes down unless you’re practically daring people to make the association—or you are completely oblivious. However substantive are the parallels between the Madison and Cairo movements, from that moment on, the narrative opened up in a way that continues to be advantageous to the demonstrators, in terms of how we see ourselves, and how we think of ourselves as having a world audience. Walker’s blind spot hearkens back to Debord, where he says the spectacle, for all its tendencies to accumulate possibilities and thereby curtail them, loses it ability to think strategically.

2)   The battle of bodies is over. For the moment, the opposition has conceded the point. All the websites that promoted the counter demo have erased their reporting on it, in other words, have chalked it up as a loss and moved on. From there they moved to the arena of pranking, dirty tricks, and unapologetic meddling. The call for trouble makers and the out of state-driven effort to recall Democratic state senators fall into these categories. But even here the progressives have scored the first point. Today, Wednesday, by mid-morning the news broke that Scott Walker has been caught on tape in a conversation with an activist posing as billionaire conservative donor David Koch. We don’t know where this will lead in the news cycle of the next few days, but already it is big. There are calls from public interest groups for a full investigation into the relationship between Walker and the Koch empire, and journalists smell blood.

3)   While the beating heart of the movement continues to be the capitol rotunda, which during waking hours ranges from very loud to super loud (see any youtube video of the rotunda demonstrations), the movement is at a turning point. Walker is dug in, he’s made that clear. The unions are, as well. Their opening gambit of conceding all demands for employee contributions in exchange for the basic right of collective bargaining paid off handsomely in the form of a mass movement and popular support. But now they cannot concede anything else. The language of strike is in the air. When and how is the question. Before the bill gets rammed through, or only after? The workers and students must think through, must imagine what an effective strike will look like—how to maintain the beauty and love that has been communicated so well by the demonstrations, but in the form of a strike, ie a measured, targeted, well-articulated, and loving withdrawal of labor. The demonstrations have been disruptive, true, but that has not been the main story precisely because the evidence of self-organization, creativity, sincerity, and novel forms of sociality has taken over the storyline, to the point of drawing in participants who want to help author it. When Walker carries out his threat to start firing workers, which may begin as early as the end of this week, the question of a strike will move front and center. Then, for supporters from afar, the situation will also change.

4)   How to place this movement? Not only in relation to current worldwide unrest, but also in comparison to the UC campus strikes of last year, and the Republic Doors and Windows occupation that happened in Chicago in late 2008, the last two instances of real disobedience to come out of an American student or worker left? Compared to those recent American campaigns, here the worker-student divide has been successfully bridged from the inception, and the space of demonstration has been utilized very well, framing the rallies under the gravitas of the Capitol building. No complete thoughts, as everything continues to move here, but the questions of historical significance creep in. Especially when you see signs like this:

There is much more to say, particularly about under-surface tensions within the movement, and how demands beyond that of preserving collective bargaining rights might get articulated in a complementary way. The unity is strong for the moment, but attempts to break it apart unceasing, including a growing security presence at the Capitol, shrinking the public’s hold on space, especially overnight. My guess is that rotunda will remain loud during the day but that the sleepovers will end this week. That will not be counted as a defeat, only a natural progression to the next sphere of contestation. On the local level, somehow I keep going back to high school students who catalyzed the movement in the first few days. Multi-hued, multi-lingual, multi-racial—they are the picture of the future, a different one than the (adorable and loving!) older mostly white workers, teachers, and parents. The young of Madison, nearly 50% of color in a traditionally white town, are usually a source of anxiety here—crime, achievement gaps, curfews, etc, etc. But now they’ve show a bit of their minds and hearts, and it gave strength to the rest of us right when we needed it, early. This will be their world, what will they do to shape it, given the chance?

To finish (for now), a short tour of the sign gallery that is the Capitol rotunda, from Tuesday afternoon, Week Two.

http://www.defendwisconsin.org/

Check the Wisconsin AFSCME website for updates on planned actions, especially now that action is being organized outside Madison, in other parts of Wisconsin: http://www.wiafscme.org/

For in town, check the Madison Activist Calendar: http://lists.madimc.org/~infoshop/activistcalendar.html