Wisconsin: Three Months Later

Posted June 7, 2011

In the three months since the Budget Repair Bill was signed, activists in Wisconsin have been looking for whatever they can do to keep things going and to refuse to let the austerity agenda proceed unhindered. Undoubtedly, important coalitions and actions have come together to attempt to keep the protest energy together, but its been difficult for these things to really take hold in the face of at least two major institutional endeavors: the first has been the recalls (the timeframe to collect signatures to recall legislators is just about ending now), and the second was the Supreme Court election, which lasted much longer than expected in light of the election fraud and subsequent recount (in the end, the right-wing justice Prosser still won). The big electoral organizing being over, the time is just about right for another go at street protest.

So last week a series of actions were planned by people around National Nurses United (which does not currently have members in Madison, but have kept a few paid organizers here since February to organize some of the coalition campaigns), some individual trade unionists and younger student/community activists. The idea then was basically that people who were dissatisfied by the way that the struggle had turned out since the bill’s passage wanted to try and bring back the street activity. After some discussion, the plan came up to organize some direct actions to block the intersections around the capitol building, take protests to banks and halt business as usual. The organizing committee decided on Monday because it marks the beginning of the arguments in the Supreme Court about whether or not to uphold Judge Sumi’s May 26 order that invalidated the Budget Repair Bill, as well as the deliberations over the state’s Biennial Budget (though the Legislature wouldn’t be in session that day). Leading up to Monday, a group organized a “Walkerville” tent city as a vigil down one of the four streets that surround the capitol (“the square”), and NNU issued a public “Letter to Wisconsinites” that drew on some history of major struggles in Wisconsin and called for a return to protests.

Breakdown of Events

At noon Monday, firefighters from local 311 led a march up State Street up to the Capitol with about 1,000 people trailing them–Firefighters Local 583 came from Beloit, as well as some members of CWA 4630, AFSCME Locals 60 and 171, the Teaching Assistants Association, a few Wisconsin Professional Police Association members with “Cops for Labor” signs out again as well as some unionists out on their own; from outside the trade unions, a few carried signs from NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin and a couple anti-war groups. Behind the march, three or four farmers rode on their tractors with signs from Family Farm Defenders; some road workers called out of work to ride their motorcycles in; a Madison city bus driver from an under-used route joined after; NNU brought a flatbed truck with speakers playing music (and a guy in tights called some stuff out that I could barely hear); Union Cab Cooperative carried up the rear with about a dozen yellow cabs.

The plan from here was supposed to be that after doing a lap around the capitol square, the cars would park in front of the intersections and activists would form blockades to stop traffic. But prior to the action, a firefighter had spoken to Mayor Soglin and the police department (with the knowledge of the rest of the organizing committee) about the actions and had arranged a deal where they would tolerate the blockade for a few hours before issuing citations and towing the vehicles. Instead, police took up positions and directed traffic, preventing the civil disobedience before it could get started, and then ordered the vehicles off the square and gave notice that tow-trucks were already on the way. (Kyle Szarzynski discusses some of that on his blog).

Blockades foiled, the protests continued to M&I Bank, where bank employees were already preparing to close and lock up. A group of protestors tried to get in but were met by security guards at the doors, and a half dozen Madison police officers rushed in to push the crowd back, arresting two people before they managed to disperse and pull the gate down.

From there, firefighters continued the march around the square, leading with some bagpipes. By 12:30 most everything that was planned for was over, and not knowing what to do people walked up to the Capitol again. The crowd split up into a few mostly random groups, with some entering through the main doors and going through the State Patrol security check. Firefighters and AFSCME members rallied by the east doors, chanting and singing songs to be let in there. A few people ran through to open locked doors, where dozens would rush in before police shoved them out and locked up again. Inside, people tried to crowd up to disrupt activity in the building, and police shoved around and arrested four (an aggressive departure from their behavior in February and March). Some inside intended to stay until 4pm, saying that they expected school teachers to join then, but things were just about over by 2pm and to my knowledge teachers never came.


Things didn’t go as planned, but some important things happened all the same. First, its kind of incredible that over a thousand people rallied on a Monday afternoon, the majority appearing to be union members and not full-time activists, many of whom were looking for more militant activity after the last three months. Second, though blockades and bank disruption weren’t executed the way they were intended, the square still was closed down (albeit by police) and M&I Bank closed for the afternoon. Lastly, people’s encounters with police taught important lessons to those who had previously deferred to police, and people started talking about not working with police for future actions.

All that said, there are some items of concern. Strategically, there seemed to be a lot of confusion and people conflated a desire for escalation or a certain kind of tactics with a set of demands or objectives. The purpose of the actions was never really clear, even for someone that was actively looking for it–I asked a few different people who had competing notions of what we were there for, and no flyers or speakers made a common point for people. This ended up playing out after the confrontation at the bank, where people, not really knowing what to do, just rushed the Capitol for no reason. Tactically, people planning for the direct action didn’t seem trained or prepared and when the plan went south they didn’t have a back-up, which led to confusion and chaos. The amount of coordination needed wasn’t really there for such an ambitious set of actions, and the “festival of resistance” ended up taking over, where people were just glad to be in the street again for whatever reason. The last thing is that people started complaining about lack of transparency: a debrief and next steps meeting was set for 7pm that evening, and was changed without discussion to be earlier in the afternoon.

All in all, this marks an important step for the movement and there is exciting potential to see militant struggle return to the fore, but the window for this may well be short (as the first round of recall elections begins in mid-July).