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Wisconsin’s “Capitol City” Was Testing Ground for Participatory Democracy

A protester gestures from an upper floor of the rotunda at the State Capitol building, in Madison, Wis., February 27, 2011. (Photo: Nicole Bengiveno / The New York Times) Newly elected Gov. Scott Walker kept a lid on his controversial, billionaire-backed “budget repair” bill until it was almost time to vote on it. Once details were made public, he thought he would have it passed by the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature in under a week. That was before the Wisconsin State Capitol building was occupied and several large wildcat strikes and student walkouts brought thousands into the streets. Soon, all fourteen Democratic senators would flee the state and the largest demonstrations in Wisconsin's history would bring international attention to the antiunion agenda behind the bill.

Newly elected Gov. Scott Walker kept a lid on his controversial, billionaire-backed “budget repair” bill until it was almost time to vote on it. Once details were made public, he thought he would have it passed by the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature in under a week.

That was before the Wisconsin State Capitol building was occupied and several large wildcat strikes and student walkouts brought thousands into the streets. Soon, all fourteen Democratic senators would flee the state and the largest demonstrations in Wisconsin's history would bring international attention to the antiunion agenda behind the bill.

I came to Madison and slept in the Capitol for five nights during the occupation. I wanted to get a clear understanding of the movement's depth, capacity and commitment. I traveled back more recently to get the story of how the occupation came to be, how it was organized, how people have reflected on it since and the role it has played in the mass movement here.

The Occupation Happens

February 14, 2011, Valentine's Day: “I Love UW – Don't Break My Heart,” read the cards that 2,000 students lined up to deliver to Governor Walker, calling for the rights of students and educators to be respected in the recently published budget repair bill.

Though the protest at the Capitol had been planned weeks earlier, the massive turnout reflected the angry response to the bill's details. “It was a starting point to show people in a very immediate way that people are reacting to [the bill],” said participant Sara Lam, a University of Wisconsin (UW) graduate student.

Organizers quickly realized that the next day's demonstrations would be significant. Indeed, on February 15, according to the Associated Press, 13,000 people demonstrated against the bill. A few weeks later, the crowds would break 100,000.

Inside the Capitol, thousands lined up to give two-minute testimonies to a joint finance committee of the state government. UW student Tom Bird, originally from Oshkosh, was one of them. He had not been politically active before he and over 1,000 other UW students walked out on February 16.

Bird said the four hours he spent listening to others speak as he awaited his turn changed him. “From 3:00 until 7:00 was probably the most driving experience I'd ever had in my life to get involved,” he said. “The stuff I heard was just jaw-dropping.”

After Republicans walked out, Democrats announced they would keep the hearings, now unofficial, running twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. People began sleeping in the halls and rotunda to hold the space so the testimonies could continue.

The hearings were both transformational for individuals and instrumental in remaking the protests into a broader movement. “It started with the hearings,” said Erika Wolf, advocacy field organizer for the United Council of UW Students. “And thousands and thousands of people showed up.”

“It was never something we had anticipated, that a community was going to form and live in this space and be sort of the focal point of the resistance to the budget repair bill – and the beginnings of a social movement,” said Wolf.

“As far as I know, nobody had set out to say 'We are going to occupy our State Capitol,'” said UW graduate student Charity Schmidt, who was there the first night. “That was the first night we stayed in the Capitol, simply to let our voice be heard in the public hearing.”

It was in this way that the occupation began: not as an accident, but not as a preplanned political mobilization. Though some experienced activists and organizers were present, there was nothing like the massive infrastructural planning that typically goes into a large demonstration.

“Capitol City” Takes Shape

As the confusing, spur-of-the-moment protests turned into a temporary community, dozens of individuals stepped up to meet others' needs and figure out how this new community would function.

Early on, members of the Teacher Assistant Association (TAA) established a “command center” inside where organizers would coordinate press calls, update web sites and social media, and begin to gather resources for the long stay.

As local businesses like Lori Henn's cafe, Michelangelo's, and the Willy Street Co-op began donating food and coffee, food distribution became an issue.

“People were donating food to keep people energized in the Capitol.” UW graduate student John Zinda recalls being asked by one volunteer if he would figure out where to serve food inside. “That was how the food station started,” he said.

“The level of commitment was just astounding,” Zinda said. “We'd have two or three people volunteering at the food station and another person upstairs, and then somebody running in-between … pretty much around the clock.”

To keep people safe and healthy, a group of “street medics” organized a table with basic first-aid and disease prevention materials. Another group began a “marshaling team” to keep things peaceful.

Rek Kwawer, a state worker and member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union (AFSCME), worked with the medic station. “We had at least one person who was an acupuncturist, one person who was a firefighter,” said Kwawer. “It was a pretty mixed crowd.”

The medical table soon hosted cold-flu medicines, vitamin C, water, hand sanitizer, medical advice and more. Any medical concerns could be brought there. Medics treated symptoms on the spot or offered a hospital escort.

After noticing that many participants were confused due to a lack of centralized information, UW senior Harriet Rowan started the “Information Station”.

One task of the station was rumor control and information dispersal. “What people upstairs in the 'Command Center' didn't understand was that people in the Capitol … didn't know what was going on,” said Rowan. “A lot of people … didn't know there was testimony going on, or when the assembly was meeting.”

“When something huge would happen, we would also make a huge sign and just walk around with it,” Rowan said.

“That was when you could feel that it had changed, from people just sleeping, to actually taking possession of the Capitol, when they started posting their own signs and setting up the info station,” said Karen Scott, a TAA member who coordinated the marshaling team.

“We went around and we changed all of the tape on the posters to blue painter's tape,” said Trevor Young-Hyman, a graduate student at UW. “And people would sleep on different floors, for when the custodial service would come through.”

The blue tape was mentioned to me in several interviews. To some, the tape and the posters it held were two of the more visible symbols of the power shifts that occurred by the end of February.

Young-Hyman had been organizing trash cleanup efforts since the earlier days of the occupation. “We just started cleaning up trash,” he said. “We started organizing it, and it just sort of happened.”

The team came up with creative ways of handling the job. Young-Hyman described the “Trash Cleanup March”: “You would assemble about 20 people and you would basically march through the crowd chanting.”

Eventually, the team coordinated directly with the building supervisor and janitorial staff.

Not far from the Information Station was the childcare space, which, according to organizer Mary Jo, emerged when volunteers started getting meals for youth and putting up youth-made art and other flyers on the walls. Soon, the three mothers who participated in this effort officially organized the childcare area, which became known as the North Wing Family Center.

Though many brought their families to the Capitol, Mary Jo said many mothers stayed home with children while fathers continued more visible work on these issues. Thus, the family space was created to work toward collectively supporting children and parents, primarily mothers.

Below the childcare space in the Rotunda, an open-microphone session ran from morning to night. Anyone could speak, including opposition supporters. Bird mentioned one Walker supporter's appearance. “We let the guy speak his mind,” he said. “He should be allowed to speak, too.”

In addition to helping run the open-mic, Bird joined the drum circle, a loosely organized group of people that stayed at the center of the Rotunda on the first floor from morning to night.

“There was no formal organization; there were just people there with drums,” Bird said. “It was very open and inclusive.”

Housed next to the open-mic, the drum circle would fall silent for each speaker. If the crowd wasn't silent, or if one needed more quiet, a peace sign would be thrown in the air.

By the second week, the peace sign was an understood symbol, but it wasn't always respected. A constant but light tension existed throughout the space as many different groups and individuals navigated how this community would function.

Collective Identity and Power

The internal dynamics between the people and organizations in what became “Capitol City” cannot be downplayed. However, they must be understood as power dynamics that existed in a specific time and space, where many factors were in play and much was at stake.

Tensions sometimes arose between established organizations and unorganized people or new, ad hoc groups. After the occupation ended, many of those who participated in the drum circle and the open-mic, for instance, formed the Autonomous Solidarity Organization (ASO).

“Virtually nobody knew anybody else in that group before we met at the Capitol,” said David Vines, a UW undergraduate student and member of the ASO. “It would be accurate to say that none of us really knew each other [before that].”

Some from the ASO and other groups saw the TAA as being too controlling. Others felt their role was essential but admitted there were shortcomings in communication and transparency.

“There was already somewhat of a hierarchy or an organizational structure [within the TAA],” Young-Hyman said. He believes that this dynamic led to some wrongful impressions that the TAA desired power. However, “it was definitely potentially problematic … other groups and individuals who were less organized, who were maybe more experienced activists, felt a little bit run over.”

“There was a lot of tension about how the TAA got so much credit for the occupation and not many other groups appeared to have,” said Scott. She is pushing for the TAA to publicly acknowledge all the other groups' efforts.

Part of this tension was due to the different reasons individuals and groups stayed in the Capitol. “There is some level of ideological split about how these things work,” Wolf said. She pointed out that most people attempting to organize together inside had never met each other or worked together before.

“There were people who wanted to see the occupation continue to happen because they saw it as strategic, and some people who wanted to see it continue because they saw it as fun and exciting,” she continues. “And then within either of those groups, there were multiple perspectives on how, what and why. So that was a constant point of conflict.”

“I was always torn about whether to call it an 'occupation,'” Rowan said. “For me, it was more about being there to be part of what was going on in the Capitol, as opposed to just 'taking the space.' At the same time, Capitol City was a real thing, a real idea and I think that was underestimated (by other groups).”

This tension produced the Capitol City Leadership Committee, an ad hoc formation that attempted to organize all groups doing infrastructural or strategic work inside the Capitol.

“I started inviting people, like those doing food, coordinating media and the drum circle,” Wolf said. “Some people doing food during the day didn't know other people doing food at night, so there was a real need to coordinate.”

Throughout the occupation, different groups made a joint effort in discussions with the police, which some saw as needed and others saw as problematic. “Me and a couple other Capitol City community people started having daily meetings and briefings with the police,” said Shmidt.

“I've heard a lot of criticisms, and I agree with them and understand them, but this was such a unique moment in which the police took a political stand to come out against the budget repair bill … and basically supported what was happening in the Capitol.”

“They would come be like, 'Someone is bringing stuff in through the windows,'” Rowan said, “and we would say, 'Well, we can ask people not to, but you need to make sure food can get in other ways.'”

“There were definitely instances when the police went out of their way to help protestors out,” Lam said. “But at other times, their seemingly friendly demeanor could just as likely have been a tactic for maintaining peace rather than a show of solidarity, especially for certain units of the police who were not as sympathetic to the protest as others.” She said she heard people say that they experienced racial profiling in the Capitol as well.

“I think if the police unions hadn't have stood with us, the feelings might have been different,” Scott points out. “But it was really part of the Capitol culture to keep things peaceful.”

The situation with the police was challenging for those with strong, justifiable preconceptions about the role of police in protests. “They couldn't treat [us] like they normally would, because they weren't being treated like they normally would,” Shmidt said. “And I think whenever you have a space like that, when people break down their normal social barriers, that you try to push it.”

In the end, Rowan said asking people to follow police suggestions may have made them more vulnerable to being slowly pushed out. “In a certain way, our relationship with the police did facilitate people moving when the police asked us to, which is what made us end up on the ground floor.”

Shmidt believes the easy eviction was more due to a lack of power, not police trickery. “I felt like that could have been a much more effective relationship if the bigger organizations, my own [TAA] including, were to have a more affirmative stance on making demands on the police ourselves,” she said.

Shmidt's critique alludes to a larger tension between those inside the Capitol and those in union leadership positions and in the Democratic Party.

A New Power to Challenge the Old

“I was telling the unions and people from nonprofits and the Democrats, 'You are not in charge,'” Wolf said, describing one tense meeting during the occupation. “'The people inside are not there because you told them to come there; they are there because they need to be there for themselves.'”

“What we do need to do is make sure that what's growing as a movement stays together, and that everyone has a place in it,” she told them.

Kwawer is careful to point out that while she is actively defending union rights, she is very critical of her own union's leadership and organizing style.

“I do want to keep paying my dues, and I do want to keep being a union member,” she said. “But I would also like a union I can actually be involved in, rather than this union that's starting to remind me of a political party.”

Her hope is that a new sense of unionism will grow out of these protests, one that draws workers into more democratic unions that can effectively fight outside of the Democratic Party. “Because unions have been so top-down, there's not really any organizing capacity on the bottom,” she said.

To Scott, the TAA's internal dynamics are a microcosm of a larger issue at play: unions are losing touch with communities. Some are struggling with egotistical, disconnected leadership, while others are struggling to balance political goals with the need to keep members empowered and involved. “I think anytime you lose community outreach, you isolate yourself,” she said.

Scott pointed out what many others said in interviews and articles: the Wisconsin movement is not just about the unions, and it never was.

“Kill the Bill” was a slogan often heard in chants from the crowd, signifying that despite some unions stating publicly that they were willing to compromise for their collective bargaining rights, those in the streets were united in total opposition to the bill.

“I know a lot of folks outside of the union movement were concerned,” she said. “People who were there because they care about Badger Care [Wisconsin's state Medicaid program], people who were there because they care for the environment.”

“I see it as part of the larger class warfare,” said Scott.

Critics suggested that because unions were so tightly bound to the occupation, it was part of a Democratic Party plot. Far-right pundits at Fox News and some left radicals seemed to agree, but the occupation's participants did not.

“Whether you are talking about unions or whether you are talking about the Democratic Party, this is where we saw that the people were out in front of the leaders,” Shmidt points out. “They were ahead of the leaders … the leaders were just catching up.”

There's no way to construe it as being overseen by the Democrats,” Scott said. “Some people might have illusions about the Democrats, but I think that for a lot of people [supporting Wisconsin Democrats] is just very pragmatic and practical.”

“It wasn't like we were following orders from the Democrats, not at all,” Young-Hyman adds. “We wanted to apply maximum political pressure to everyone. Obviously, we needed them to play a role, but our role was keeping the pressure on.”

“We're not working for the Party,” Vines said of the ASO. “We're working for the middle class, the working class, the working poor and students.”

Bird, who organizes now with the ASO, said he considers the Senate Democrats heroes for standing up to the bill and fleeing the state, but he emphasized that they played no greater role in the occupation than anyone else. “[They] were supporting [the occupation],” he said, “but in no way, shape or form were they running anything.”

Lam does not view the actions of the Democrats as being too radical. “The Republicans are doing these outrageous things and the Democrats don't even have to say that they are trying to do something progressive,” she said. “All they have to do is say they are opposed to these absolutely crazy things, and then all the sudden they are heroes.”

While he is backing the recall efforts, UW graduate student Mario Bruzzone is nervous about how they will pan out as far as the social movement is concerned. “As always, the devil's in the details,” he said, emphasizing that it's less important what the movement is doing electorally as much as how they are doing it. “Whether that then gets mobilized outside of just electoral politics, that's the million-dollar question right now,” he said.

With the Tea Party gaining power nationally as unions struggle to become relevant to their members and the Democratic Party loses support from its own base as a result of Obama's two faces, it is an important time to assess the power of the Wisconsin movement and identify its successes and shortcomings.

For now, organizers say that the statewide recall efforts are going successfully, while yet-to-be-public plans to expand the capacity of the grassroots organizing efforts are in the works.

They are thinking of this as a long fight, one that started at the Capitol but that is now fanning out across the state.

Indeed, this is still a young movement.

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