Dan Wang: Report Back from WI

second report on the wisconsin movement

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.’

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.


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.

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

For in town, check the Madison Activist Calendar: