“The Past Two Weeks Have Completely Changed My Life”: On the Frontlines of the Wisconsin Struggle with Colin

Posted March 1, 2011

What has been the atmosphere of Madison over the last several days?

Colin: On Saturday, the crowd was the largest that I’ve seen yet. The energy was really high and it was incredible to see. The conservative estimate was 70,000 people, while Democracy Now reported 100,000 people. It was incredible to see that many people braving the cold and I can assure you that it was cold. It was incredible to see all the different unions represented in that crowd, from steelworkers to teachers to firefighters, electricians, nurses, police officers, AFSCME, the Teamsters. Teamsters from Milwaukee have sent two trucks. Many signs showed that they were private workers, non-unionized, but that they supported unions generally.

On Sunday, I didn’t make it out to the Capitol until 3pm. I went at that time because I had heard that they were going to start taking out people at 4pm. I went to act as a witness in the event of civil disobedience. There were a few hundred people around the Capitol. There were a number of people there. The cops were only letting people in one entrance. People were chanting, “Whose house, our house.” Inside the Capitol, the police asked people to leave. Maybe 100 people decided to leave voluntarily. We formed a corridor at the door leading out of the Capitol. Those leaving were applauded.

After that group of people left willingly, we went to a different exit and formed a second corridor. As a I understand it, there were three groups of people in Capitol: people who volunteered to leave, people who were willing to be arrested and then leave, and then a third group who were going to refuse to move and get arrested. I was expecting people who were going to get arrested to come out, but they never did. Word came out that the police were not going to arrest anybody.

Today [Monday], everybody thought that the Capitol was going to open at regular hours and new people were going to go in. That way, the people inside could rest, and the occupation would continue. But in the morning, word started circulating that Governor Walker has put pressure on Capitol police to clear the Capitol by Tuesday when he will release a new budget with massive cuts. He doesn’t want protesters in the Capitol for that speech. The Capitol police seem unwilling to arrest the protesters inside the Capitol. In some way that has denied the occupation protesters the media coverage a mass civil disobedience arrest would bring. These protesters are sleep deprived, hungry, and haven’t had a shower in a while. If they slowly leave without being arrested, the police will have cleared the Capitol and denied the occupiers the media spectacle of a mass arrest for civil disobedience. That would be a loss for us, I think. But I have also heard rumors that supplies are being smuggled in.

How have undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison been involved in the protests?

My impression is that the undergraduates are for the most part unclear on what is going on. There are some undergrads who are enthusiastic protesters, who are organizing walk-outs and going to protests regularly. The majority of the undergrads, however, don’t seem to understand their relationship to what is going on at the Capitol right now. When I have talked to some undergrads, they tend to speak of the bill as an interesting event that is currently taking place, but that is outside of their lives. Many have not gone to the Capitol at all.

The TAA (Teaching Assistants’ Association) has been at the front of what’s been happening from the beginning. The TAs have, for the most part, attended the protests regularly and are really committing to supporting the union [movement]. I suspect that support among grad students in the sciences is significantly less. And that has everything to do with material conditions for graduate students in the sciences vis-à-vis the humanities. The TAA was one of the principal groups starting the occupation and they were one the major supporters of the legislative committee hearings. They convened hearings even when the bill passed through the State Assembly and that was one of the reasons the occupation started, in order to keep the hearings going. There are still TAs in the Capitol right now [Monday night].

The strike of 2004 is still in the collective memory of the TAA graduate union. They recognize that their tuition remission, health care, and wages depend on the existence of their union. The connection between the budget repair bill and their lives is direct. The bill would effectively eliminate the TAA, in advance of big cuts to public education. Many undergrads do not realize yet that the new Badger Partnership will raise tuition. I’m not alone in feeling that the average undergraduate these days is lacking in historical consciousness. I’ve met very smart undergraduates, but the average undergrad probably knows next to nothing about the history of labor.

I’ve heard that the faculty voted for and received the right to unionize in 2009 and nothing has come of that. That is in part because it is hard to get individual faculty to agree on anything. Most of the faculty has been very supportive of the TAA. Many faculty members have been present at the protests and at least one time they marched with the undergraduates during a walkout, carrying banners saying that we support unions.

What has been the morale and mood of the demonstrators recently?

The morale was very high on Saturday on Sunday. Today [Monday], people do not know what to think because it is unclear what is going to happen at the Capitol. People also seem to be preparing to protest for a long time. In the first two weeks, everyone dropped everything to protest as much as possible. Now, everybody is trying to figure out how to go back to living their lives while still protesting as much as they can.

No matter what happens, the protests that have already occurred have radicalized many, many people and enabled more people to see that they can accomplish things through collective action. This may be an optimistic spin on things, but the past two weeks have completely changed my life and I don’t think that I’m alone. And I’ve talked to people who were involved in the anti-war protests of the 1960s/1970s. They say the demonstrations of the scale of the past two weeks are the type of political activity that have provided solace during a time of general quiescence. Nothing can take away what has happened during the past two weeks. This could be the dawn of a new era for the Left in the U.S. It could also be the last glimmer of light before night falls on an era of unmitigated reaction. I’m not sure we’ll be able to tell whether this was the dawn of a new left/labor movement or its death for years. It is hard to assess what will happen and harder to assess what has already happened.

It seems like one of Gov. Walker’s critical errors was not taking into account the power of the mythology of the 1960s in Madison. The struggle has become about the identity of Madison and Wisconsin. There are a number of activists from the 1960s that have been keeping the ideas and tactics alive. I’ll give one anecdotal example. It is clear that many are protesting for the first time. First-time protesters didn’t know what to chant. In another city, people might not know what to do. But here, the seasoned activists can own the megaphone and get people to chant. One thing that has been really moving is watching Madison people learning the song “Solidarity Forever”. Now, sometimes, the crowd spontaneously sings “Solidarity Forever”. In the last few days, the song, “Which Side Are On”, which is a much more aggressive song, has emerged in the protests.