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From Madison to Zuccotti Park

Bill Murray: C'mon, it's Czechoslovakia. We zip in, we pick 'em up, we zip right out again. We're not going to Moscow. It's Czechoslovakia. It's like going into Wisconsin. Harold Ramis: Well, I got the shit kicked out of me in Wisconsin once. Forget it! I shouldn't begin with a reference to a movie that came out before many protesters were just a gleam in the eyes of their debt collectors. But I always think of this scene from Stripes when I remember how Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker thought he would easily walk over the unions and poor people of his state.

Bill Murray: C'mon, it's Czechoslovakia. We zip in, we pick 'em up, we zip right out again. We're not going to Moscow. It's Czechoslovakia. It's like going into Wisconsin.

Harold Ramis: Well, I got the shit kicked out of me in Wisconsin once. Forget it!

I shouldn't begin with a reference to a movie that came out before many protesters were just a gleam in the eyes of their debt collectors. But I always think of this scene from Stripes when I remember how Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker thought he would easily walk over the unions and poor people of his state.

This week marks the anniversary of the monthlong uprising in the state Capitol building in Madison, which set the stage in so many ways for the Occupy movement later in the year. Wisconsin made it clear that the spirit of the Arab Spring was coming this way, American exceptionalism be damned.

There's an an organizational trail from Madison right to Zuccotti Park. Several months after the Capitol occupation, Wisconsinites created the “Walkerville” tent city, which inspired New York City's “Bloombergville,” which brought together the folks who called the first General Assembly to plan around Adbusters' call to Occupy Wall Street.

Walkerville, Bloombergville and many other efforts between February and September never grew large enough to make a difference. Occupy Wall Street initially looked like it might share the same fate—until a series of events helped it become a national phenomenon.

That's worth keeping in mind today when Occupy finds itself in a lull. In some quarters, frustration and impatience are taking hold, leading in some cases to small purposeless acts of provocation that elicit large and quite purposeful attacks by police forces.

In much of the movement debate that followed one such incident in Oakland, there's been a depressing symmetry of wrongness: one side argues that a few badasses need to fight cops and break shit because the majority will never be that radical, while the other responds that they shouldn't because the majority will never be that radical.

Let's go back one year. Tens of thousands of people did something far more badass than vandalizing a government building. They took one over for weeks. Schoolteachers and students and plumbers scuffled with Republican legislators to block them from the senate chambers. Teachers held a three-day illegal strike via a sick-out.

How did it happen? The Madison uprising in response to Walker's all-out assault on public-sector workers and their unions was the result of a series of escalating events predicted by no one.

Following several days of smaller demonstrations by students and individual union members, Madison teachers called their sick-out through activist networks. The union president unofficially endorsed it by calling on teachers across the state to come to Madison. That brought to the Capitol sufficient numbers to the turn a protest into an occupation. And that in turn pressured Democratic legislators to flee the state to deny Walker a quorum for his bill, which gave the occupation weeks to grow and deepen and change everything.

We can't recreate that unique sequence. Even if we could, there were specific conditions in the largely white city of Madison—such as a remarkably friendly police force—that it would not be wise to count on happening again.

But we can take some lessons from Wisconsin to help us step back from the tunnel vision that sees every question only through the lens of Occupy. Their common features show us what features are essential to our movement and what are not.

The most obvious similarity is the mass takeover of public space. But occupation is a tactic, and if we start on that level, we can miss the even more foundational elements that found their expression through the tactic of occupation. Wisconsin and Occupy both tapped into the hope and anger that have boiled for decades beneath the American soil by loudly proclaiming two values so missing in our society: democracy and solidarity.

Across the world, the fight against austerity has been inseparable from the fight for democracy. The reason is straightforward: policies that punish the many for the gluttony and other sins of the few can only be carried out autocratically—by dictators in Egypt, European Union technocrats in Greece, or corrupted democracies from Madison to Madrid.

Within these fights to democratize society have been efforts to create our own models of democracy. Each protest movement has combined external demands with internal models of a more democratic society.

The balance between these two efforts has varied from place to place. Wisconsin created impressive systems of self-organization, from information desks to first aid, but these were largely means to the end of stopping Walker's legislation from passing. Zuccotti Park famously rejected any formal demands and had a larger component of occupiers seeking to create a new society right there in the park. But the movement actively encouraged informal demands and shifted the national discussion about dozens of laws and policies.

Just as important has been the rebirth of solidarity. Scott Walker thought he would have an easy time destroying Wisconsin's unions because he was elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010. Unions had been the target of divide-and-conquer propaganda in the One Percent media typified by billionaire Mort Zuckerman's column in his own U.S. News and World Report: “Public-Sector Workers are the New Privileged Elite Class.”

Instead, private-sector workers flooded Madison and firefighters, who were exempted from Walker's bill, joined the occupation. In this joyful scene—a preview of why “We are the 99 percent” would become such a rallying cry—protesters rediscovered honest-to-goodness working-class pride.

A visiting guidance counselor from New York described a scene from the Capitol:

Every contingent entering the Capitol walks through this hallway, and the people's mic (situated in the middle of the rotunda where anyone can line up and speak) is temporarily silenced to welcome them: Crowds surrounding erupt in cheers, whether in greeting students, firefighters, members of Iraq Veterans Against the War or a high school drum line from Milwaukee that took over the center of rotunda for a 10-minute routine.

Nurses arriving from Chicago were thanked profusely not only for coming, but for the work they do back home. Such a basic sentiment—and yet so rare in this era when it is said without irony that iPads were “made” by Steve Jobs.

Wisconsin and Zuccotti Park were able to tap into the hunger for democracy and solidarity by creating their own Tahrir Squares to express them. The tactic of occupying public space enabled the protests to draw strength from the fluid interaction between the relative minority holding down the occupation and the streaming majority coming through for support, defense and mutual education.

After decades of economic restructuring that has destroyed traditional working-class organizations and eliminated public spaces, occupation burst forth in 2011 as a tactic so perfect for its time that it spread across the world like wildfire, as happened in this country with sit-down strikes in 1937 and lunch-counter sit-ins in 1960.

Eventually, of course, we lost these spaces. Occupy encampments were brutally broken up, while the Madison protesters were led out of the Capitol by union officials and Democratic politicians promising better results through election campaigns.

The eventual loss of these occupations was probably inevitable, but nonetheless marked a defeat. In Madison, the defeat was more definitive; Walker got his legislation in the end. The Occupy movement is far from over, but we are smaller and attempts to reclaim space have been easily repelled from New York to Oakland.

We find ourselves in a catch-22: our numbers have decreased since we've lost our physical space, but we need far more numbers to retake a physical space.

This period of ebb is just one moment in a larger upsurge that started in Wisconsin and will unfold for years in the future. We need that perspective to avoid the frustration that seems to be leading some to look for pseudo-militant tactical shortcuts that bypass the very democracy and solidarity that all of this has been built on.

Take, for example, Occupy Oakland's call in support of a proposed general strike on May Day. The authors of the call, apparently tired of waiting for unions to catch up to their advanced position, sound way too much like Mort Zuckerman or Scott Walker when they declare that “we must re-imagine a general strike for an age where most workers do not belong to labor unions, and where most of us are fighting for the privilege to work rather than for marginal improvements in working conditions. “

Then there is the letter to Oakland's mayor from a small group of Occupiers who have replaced visions of popular democratic power with something more reminiscent of a dark comic book hero (or villain). The letter threatens to somehow shut down the city's ports, government, and airport and concluding with the following:

It will be in our mutual interest if you respect our occupation by recognizing our residency and eminent domain. We are sure that we all look forward to the needs of Oakland's people finally being met. Don't fuck with the Oakland Commune.

How would this have gone over as a speech on the people's mic in the Madison Capitol rotunda last year? To continue the theme of outdated movie references, imagine a chipper Midwesterner in the mold of Frances McDormand in Fargo:

“Oh gee. You fellas sure sound excited with the cursing and the threats. But don't ya know, I think I'll stay here with these thousands of people who are smiling and laughing and shutting down the highest level of government in the state. But good luck with whole airport blockade type deal!”

Small groups of socialists or anarchists can't summon the next uprising through a communiqué. But we can expect it nonetheless, because the One Percent has no solutions for global recession other than to keep taking and taking. We can prepare by trying to build local struggles to the point that the next Madison or Zuccotti will be large and deep enough to score some real victories.

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