Battle for Wisconsin #11: Regrouping and Reorienting

Posted March 8, 2011

A quick note on process: I want to point out that the analysis and reporting that I’ve been doing has been the result of many collective discussions and debates with my comrades, members of Solidarity as well as fellow travelers. Mistakes or misjudgments are my own, and times where I feel like I’ve been off is because I haven’t been able to work through the situation collectively. Givin’ credit where credit’s due!

Let’s start with a recap of last week before getting into where we are now. A week ago, on the last weekend of February, the Legislature tried to close the capitol and ran up against a critical mass of demonstrators and a number of police defections. On Sunday evening, 2/27, about a hundred protesters refused to leave the capitol after a dispersal order and following some short deliberation the Capitol Police announced that they would not attempt any arrests. This all set up an intensified struggle over the capitol–would the continued occupation by a hundred activists reopen the capitol or would the capitol be closed out?

A number of discussions arose during the week about whether the capitol was a distraction or not, sometimes broadbrushing the entire effort, but I think its more complicated than talk of distractions. It certainly was a victory on Sunday night when activists were able to stay in the capitol. And the lawsuits thrown at the Department of Administration Monday hinted that it was possible to reopen the building and resume the capitol protests, especially because there was such a large worker turnout pressuring the judiciary. Tuesday’s court skirmishes were engrossing but by that evening I think it became clear that a number of factors had shifted the situation and the window of opportunity for retaking the capitol was closing.

That the court did not immediately rule that the DOA and the police were breaking the law and violating the constitution suggested that they were trying to manage the fuck-ups of the Walker administration and were using the system of “checks and balances” to check Walker and balance out what could have been an explosive situation. The legal proceedings continued past Wednesday (way longer than they should have), with a final order that the DOA couldn’t keep the building closed but they didn’t have to admit anyone after business hours and no one was to sleep there–to top it off, the court order to wasn’t go into effect until Tuesday, March 8th, which was a tacit acceptance of the DOA’s methods and a cue that the DOA had a few days to finish up any remaining business with the court’s blessing. When they started letting people back in, they had diffused the anger that was building over Walker, the Legislature and the DOA’s political repression and managed to control it by letting people have access to the capitol but stripping them of the power that they had to potentially block a vote through mass action, or at least keep a close eye on what was happening.

Alongside the court ruling was a set of maneuvers by the labor bureaucracy and the Democratic Party. The AFL-CIO staff in the capitol kept telling people not to disobey the dispersal order on 2/27 and 2/28 and then undermined grassroots activists by making back room deals with police inside the capitol, finally withdrawing staff and material support from the capitol effort early last week. The Democratic Party told people to leave the capitol (Hulsey twice, others a few times as well) and that their presence was getting in the way of the legislative effort to stop Walker. In the final days of the sleep-in, police appointed a new group (who were not selected by occupiers) to “negotiate”, i.e. relay orders to evacuate. It should be clear that the Democratic Party and labor leadership did not want to keep the mass protests in the capitol going–the mass protests in the capitol enabled workers’ to connect with other workers and grassroots activists, self-organize and push for a set of increasingly militant demands and tactics, which forced the labor-dems to respond and do things they would normally never do–like flee the state or call sick-outs. By withdrawing support and literally telling people to leave, they hoped to reconvene the protests in an arena that was more under their control, out on the square where you need access to permits and special equipment to be heard (like PA’s).

I won’t go into the events of the capitol’s evacuation itself, save for mentioning a few hundred people from the No Concessions Funeral March making it past a police check-point to get into the capitol briefly, but interested parties should read the excellent account offered by a comrade, Rebecca.

On Friday morning, the capitol had been cleared of its trespassers and the building had been transformed from a redecorated and repurposed workers’ open house to a locked-down quasi-military zone. To add insult to injury, the DOA claimed it would cost $7.5 million to clean up the capitol, though they had to reduce the number to a more “appropriate” $350,000 after some push back. Even though the capitol is “open”, they have effectively neutralized the potential for disruptions and mass action, and the court really did the DOA a favor by intervening and forcing them to have a more subtle approach than they were employing.

This, I think, concludes the first part of the Battle for Wisconsin and now that the objective situation has changed a process of regroupment and reorientation is beginning. The contest for the capitol is pretty much over, and the power that was there has been circumvented by giving limited access and controlling the space. As this has happened, our sense of social time is slowing from developments every six hours to developments every day and a half–or so it feels. I had numerous conversations with people last week who felt like they had to resume much of their normal life and were trying to figure out how to balance it so as to continue the struggle. There’s a near consensus that we’ve moved from an expectation of a sharp conclusion to a much longer and more drawn out fight. In regrouping, there are many meetings, sure, but Friday and Saturday there must have been more parties and get-togethers happening than I could count. Transitioning out of this acute struggle and into whatever comes next, people did take time to celebrate themselves and each other, share some stories about this modern day folktale and heal a little.

The calculations about our tactics and strategy will necessarily have to change. What will move us towards defeating the bill as well as the budget now that the capitol situation is contained? What will be the new sites of grassroots, rank’n file assembly and forum? How do we solidify a set of demands that includes the majority of the working class, beyond organized labor and into a workers’ movement? I draw these up in the abstract, but they’re the living questions that people are grappling with in the here and now.

Some notable developments are the No Concessions contingent organized by National Nurses United, who have constructed a fairly class conscious, militant analysis–even for those who don’t subscribe to it totally, there is a meme that’s growing in popularity that the unions offered to pay for the fake crisis, and even that Walker rejected, so now the concessions should be off the table. Saturday, thousands of farmers will drive a tractorcade up to the capitol in protest of cuts to social services that affect rural workers. Freedom Inc, a racial-justice nonprofit led by women of color, has been organizing a series of town halls around Madison to mobilize communities of color against the bill and the budget and to intervene in the mainly-white protests. The Labor and Working Class Studies Project has also been organizing a series of educationals, such as an upcoming session on the “Economics of the Wisconsin Labor Struggle”.

Obviously there is and will be a lot of experimentation as the movement reorients towards all of the new developments, but the battle is hardly over. The struggle continues…