Battle for Wisconsin #10: Inside-Outside

Posted March 3, 2011

Court is still in session and access to the capitol is restricted for the fourth consecutive day. About eighty people continue the sit-in inside the capitol, for hope that the combination of popular pressure and favorable judicial order will force the DOA and police to step aside and let the occupation of the capitol resume in full; if they leave, their understanding is that the capitol will be unrecoverable for the movement.

The resolve of people inside is nothing short of heroic. Many of the activists holding the floor at the capitol have been there for days, since last Friday even, committed to staying for every night that it was rumored people would be pushed out. But unlike last week where activists would go to meetings, get food, clean up and rush back to the capitol before being locked out, they have been basically unable to leave since the doors closed Sunday afternoon. Morale has had its highs and lows, higher at the start of the week and lower every day since as the isolation and feeling of powerlessness sets in. I got a call from a comrade inside yesterday and I said to them, “Its like you’re in fucking prison,” to which they responded, “Well actually in prison you could come visit me.”

From reports with occupiers inside, the DOA has been increasing the pressure every day and is trying hard to break them: when food isn’t withheld, its cold and contaminated (and they’re getting sick of macaroni pizza); the heat has been turned off at night to freeze them out; they’re constantly surrounded by a squadron of cops, sometimes with dogs and Republican legislators and their staff gawk at them from the balcony above. Fox News has had a semi-constant live feed camera pointed at occupiers and Republicans are making dehumanizing and insulting public comments, like Senator Glenn Grothman calling them “a bunch of slobs” and saying that they’ve turned the building into a “pigsty”. Nevertheless, activists inside have developed close bonds and are having regular tactical conversations and communicating with allies on the outside, occasionally exchanging in the one-in one-out system that’s been likened to a prisoner exchange by some. Reporters with press passes and those who make appointments to lobby their legislators have some limited access, so long as they pass through a militarized check point.

As this goes on, Republicans have tried to also force the fourteen missing Senators to return. They’ve passed a bill fining each senator $100 for every day that they are missing (as well as some other associated “costs”), stripped their staff of access to supplies and parking and even issued an order for the Senators’ arrest. On the crazy front, the Senate put forth a motion banning prank calls after the Walker fiasco last week. Their strategy seems to turn the situation inside the capitol into something that looks strained and hopeless, broadcast that over national TV and sell that as the essence of this movement: small, doomed and representing full-time activists more than rank’n file workers. Its part of their battle for public opinion, and as things stall out it may have some effect.

There is a lot going on here and a lot to unpack. The situation with occupiers in the capitol is incredibly delicate both for the sake of honoring activists inside and with regards to the overall strategy. There is no doubt that those sitting in are being subject to inhumane conditions intended to encircle them psychologically and ultimately break their resolve. Having spoken to folks inside, there is a lot of serious pain and trauma and they’re having to combat the psychological effects of a prisoner situation while being forced to make critical political decisions. For their allies outside, there is an overwhelming feeling of guilt that they are not inside, not being supportive enough, not able to open the doors. Its a feeling of powerlessness that haunts us.

That being said, focusing on the micro-level shouldn’t lose sight of the objectives. Why are we here? What was the purpose of sleeping in the capitol and holding the space?

The occupation of the capitol began semi-spontaneously and grew to repurpose space into what was referred to in the media as “the workers’ cathedral”. The symbolic nature of this reclaimed capitol is plain to see, but the tactical value was something I think less examined. For one, having a critical mass of people did physically block the legislative sessions, stalled the vote and that power influenced the Democrats to high tail it. It was also a central meeting place to come in from the cold, warm up, have food, network with other workers and organize in a space that was more resilient to the machinations of the labor bureaucracy–it was just plain hard to organize a planned event in there with thousands of people and all the noise, so established institutions couldn’t use their resources like they normally do as leverage. Lastly, and maybe this is related to the symbolism, is that it was a space that built confidence and raised morale.

So then we get back to today, where there is a dedicated group on the inside being prodded and subject to a dehumanizing gaze holding out amidst the worst of circumstances. The questions that arise now are about our (and especially their) evaluations of the weight of importance the capitol holds and if we think this action will lead to returning it to our possession, and if that will win us the fight. We have to ask ourselves how this plays into the goal of killing the entire bill, pushing back the budget and, if we’re gonna just put it all out there, turning this into a workers’ offensive. There’s no easy answer, its all contingent upon the developments of the next few days, but we need to make sure to consider all the elements at play and think about where’s the source of our power.


2 responses to “Battle for Wisconsin #10: Inside-Outside”

  1. Allen R. Avatar
    Allen R.

    Haven’t had a chance to sit and write my observations, but I must tell you all how great it has been to have a re-invigorated Madison Soli branch. The younger comrades have been tremendous and the collective discussions (when we can pull everyone together) have been real important in acquiring some cohesiveness and a deepening of our tactical and strategic task and goals.

    The various forces at play on the ground are incredibly complex and the situation is ever-evolving. A rightward pole of Democrats and labor folks tied to them has been playing their part to contain and channel the motion and political focus to the narrower demands centered on collective bargaining (the huge and undeniably central issue) That has meant that lots of other social austerity legislation proposed in Walker’s budget gets under-played or ignored — a slashing of all social service funding for the neediest and the most vulnerable — the aging, the poor, those with disabilities, etc etc. That wing of the movement also couches everything as an “attack on the middle class” which in some ways is a coded language for “white”.

    At the same time, many of us have been raising class slogans and putting forward some deeper analysis in large forums and from street rostrums whenever possible. It’s quite something when you here several thousand Wisconsinites chanting “The workers united will never be defeated” or “Chop, chop chop at the top -Make the bosses take the losses”. The “learning curve” during these moments of accelerated social motion is something else.

    Because of the often contradictory role of lots of pro-labor police and even the public criticism of Walker and his lieutenants by other police officials (especially following the Koch disclosure), many liberals, etc. have constantly put out the line that “the police are with us,” “they’re our friends” and that those who have enforced the lockout of the Capitol “are only doing their jobs”. The police strategy, in return has been very smart, low keyed — an incredible P.R. strategy. Of course its kinda difficult to tell people of color that the police are your friends. That, plus the fact of already entrenched “color lines” has given the crowds a rather monochromatic hue. That said, there have been and continue to be a growing number of exceptions. (Interestingly, the head of Dane County’s Sherriffs, this hancho cop named Mahoney has been outspoken against Walker, saying that his department would not serve as “the palace guard”. Mahoney is actually a reactionary bastard who has been in the forefront of the anti-immigrant animus in the region.)

    The command center coordinating the over sixty police jurisdictions on the scene (called in from all over the state) has been restructured. The Madison Police and the Dane County Sheriff’s Dept., from what I understand, are no longer at the center. The presence of State Troopers, centurions loyal and under the command of the Governor, has noticeably been increased. At the very beginning of this, Walker said he would call out the National Guard if need be. We initially saw that as a scare tactic, but it now seems possible/probable that there were those in his inner circle who may have been concerned about the reliability of some police elements.

    There are what I view as the ultras or maybe infantile left — those who are raising the demand for a general strike, as if that can be wished into existence, pulled off by some spontaneist magic and enough shouting and pamphlets about it. If and when this budget bill passes, there’s no telling what might occur, but the trade union bureaucracy isn’t about to take that turn. At the same time, I and others at large indoor and outdoor rallies have raised the line that if the right wing wants to take things back to the 19th century “Age of the Robber Barons,” then tactics from that age must be re-invigorated and re-employed, first and foremost the solidarity strike and the solidarity boycott, outlawed long ago.

    The governor has stated that they’ll begin passing out pink slips today for some 1600 state employees. There’s another big mobilization planned for tomorrow.

    Its hard to describe the energy, the motion here on the ground — the vast array of people turning out, the age diversity, etc. everyone imaginable except the rich. The heightened union spirit. The celebratory carnival moments as people pried from their daily routines and schedules break out of their atomized and alienated individuated existence and come together in meaningful collectivity and community!

    I never thought I’d live long enough to see something like this!

    Allen R., Madison

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    excellent observation and analysis. I am from northern wi but I have spent eight days in madison since the demonstrations began – i look forward to your commentary to help me sort out my thoughts for those days I was present and to get a straight scoop for those days I was home. Please keep it coming!