I went back to Wisconsin this weekend to participate in and document what is being considered the largest demonstration in the state’s history. On Saturday, March 12, up to 100,000 people marched in Madison against the passing of Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union “budget repair” bill.
After almost a month of deadlock, Republican senators introduced an edited version of the controversial bill last week, removing economic language from the original to maneuver around a Democrat strategy to block it.
Fourteen Democratic state senators had been camped in Illinois for three weeks, depriving the Senate of the basic majority, called a quorum, required for decisions involving budgetary issues. Their absence had blocked the bill from moving forward.
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Indiana state Democrats are using the same strategy now to stall a copycat bill in that state.
The idea in Wisconsin was to delay the vote to give space for the mass movement, which flooded the Capitol with record-breaking protests to respond to the illegal methods used by Republican lawmakers to ram the bill through, while also building grassroots power around the state to challenge it politically.
Though the power-building aspect of the delay tactic was effective, Senate Republicans passed the edited bill, which is being legally contested, and the House followed suit the following day. The governor then signed it into law.
As of Sunday, March 13, state workers in Wisconsin have been stripped of their right to collectively bargain on almost every front and have been blanketed by harsh organizing restrictions.
The response from the mass movement was clear: this is only the beginning of a long fight.
Indeed, the upsurge in community and labor groups coming together is unprecedented in recent American history, drawing comparisons to the unity forged in the streets of Seattle between union workers, environmentalists and student activists during the massive protests that shut down the World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial in 1999.
Participation in the movement against the Wisconsin bill has been widespread, bringing together labor, students and community members and exposing a massive opposition to a Republican-led government that snaked into power with little mention of the massive changes it was planning on pushing through.
The bill, and the possibly illegal means with which the Republicans moved it into law, caused the largest protest in Wisconsin’s history this weekend.
Saturday’s demonstrations came after a month of mass marches, door-to-door campaigning, phone banking, rallies across the state and two weeks of daily rallies and sleep-ins inside the state Capitol building in Madison.
The sleep-ins at the capitol began as an impromptu decision by folks waiting to publicly testify against the bill, but it quickly turned into a full-out occupation, complete with childcare, free food, entertainment, a daily, ten-hour open-microphone session, a medical space and more.
Almost every day for those two weeks, the Capitol would reach its 2,500 person capacity around lunchtime as marches and individuals streamed in chanting, singing, dancing and addressing the crowds.
Midway through Saturday’s massive rally outside the Capitol, the packed crowd parted to allow some surprise guests to enter. Flanked by allies, the “Fab 14” had just returned. A huge roar greeted them as they each addressed the crowd, urging folks to keep fighting and thanking them for their commitment and energy.
The 14 are appreciated for sticking their necks out and risking their political careers to actually represent the folks of Wisconsin, something that has become very uncommon in the Democratic Party over the last many years. Most people are used to Democrats talking big and acting little. That’s how my generation watched the Iraq war start, and, more, recently, that’s how we watched the Afghan war escalate.
Wisconsin represents quite a departure from that, with democratic lawmakers fleeing the state, participating in protests, plastering the Capitol windows with protest posters, allowing protesters to use their offices to organize and even sleeping in the occupied building with hundreds of others.
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The defiant speeches Democrats made inside the House hearings on the bill inspired many to further action and helped solidify a relationship between the people and the state that more resembles the “dance” between people and state that characterizes recent Latin American democratic social movements rather than boring American politics-as-usual.
A common question from those addressing crowds throughout the protests has been, “Where the hell is Barack Obama?!” The answer is, “Who knows?” Or maybe it’s, “Who cares?” He has been silent on the issue, causing many in Wisconsin to draw a distinction between those Democrats who give a crap about common folks and those who don’t.
In fact, the national Democrats are nowhere to be found, and none seem to be making much of a public, national issue out of what all present know to be the kick-off of a national Tea Party strategy. Local people and those politicians that have stood with them are fighting it out on their own.
Some of those Wisconsin Democrats are now leading a statewide recall effort to turn the right-wing tide around. Eight Republican senators are up for immediate recall, and the petitions have already started circulating.
Many I spoke with are looking toward the effort to recall several Republican senators and, eventually, the governor, as a major point to organize around. If maintained as a grassroots effort, such a strategy could contain within it much dialogue, face-to-face political organizing and, perhaps, widespread grassroots social change.
I talked with organizers from several organizations that have been instrumental in the protests and in the sleep-in to get their perspectives on the situation. Most look toward the future as an opportunity to change the political landscape across Wisconsin, seeking to develop long-term organizing projects from the brief rupture in Madison.
They told me that, over the next few weeks, they will be announcing some very exciting things, but could not go into detail yet. Stay tuned.
On the union side, many were anticipating some sort of general strike or mass labor action, as had been discussed a few weeks back, and many workers wore that message proudly on their signs on Saturday. But the unions have not announced any major steps yet.
The word on the street is that folks are giving the legal process a few weeks to see if there isn’t a way to repeal the law on the grounds that it was rammed through illegally, without an adequate public hearing.
If that legal process fails, some are looking toward strikes as an option. Others believe a mass strike could be damaging at this point.
Even with a strike, a point of struggle will be overturning the bill, which, unless challenged effectively on legal grounds, could be hard to do. Some worry that it could be four years before political process could allow for that to happen.
But as mass movements in the past have taught us, when people organize and build enough power, laws start to matter less than justice. When a movement gains strength, suddenly the “impossible” demands of yesterday are met by a scared and defeated opposition.
Let’s hope that the movement in Wisconsin can follow in that great tradition, overcome Scott Walker’s attacks and lead the country somewhere new with a massive, grassroots political victory.
After all, as the messages of support from people in Egypt that have come to folks in Wisconsin via Facebook illustrate, the whole world is watching. And they are counting on Wisconsin to win.