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.