Hey Walker, we’re back

June 7, 2011

Sarah Lynne and Aongus Ó Murchadha report on the return of union and student protesters to the streets of Madison to take a stand against Scott Walker's budget.

MILITANT STRUGGLE returned to Madison's Capitol Square June 6 in the form of a brief occupation and direct action.

The protest--which came three months after the last mass labor demonstration against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's anti-union legislation--was inspired by mass occupations in Spain. Over the weekend, activists began a tent city named "Walkerville" as a base camp for fighting Walker's austerity budget, which is under consideration in the state legislature this week. Walkerville quickly became the stage for escalating direct action campaigns.

The first actions in what hopefully will be an intensifying series of demonstrations came on Monday. Despite sweltering heat, a contingent of approximately 700 union members and community activists marched on the square beginning at 11:30 a.m. The crowd swelled to around 1,000 as it circled the Capitol.

The action was organized by a coalition of local unions and community groups, including International Association of Fire Fighters Local 311, Madison Teachers Inc., National Nurses United, Family Farm Defenders, Union Cab, Wisconsin Resists, Union Trabajadores Inmigrantes and US Uncut. The four Wisconsin councils of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees also endorsed the protests.

Firefighters joined other workers in new protests in Madison, Wis.
Firefighters joined other workers in new protests in Madison, Wis. (Katie Zama | SW)

The spirited march stopped at a branch of M&I Bank in protest of both bank executives' support for Walker during his campaign for governor and the larger issue of the government bailout of banks. "M&I has become a symbol of this movement," said Karen Tuerk, an activist who was arrested for holding open the bank doors. "Not only are they big Walker contributors, they are a symbol of where our priorities are in this state and this country and, honestly, globally. This is a global movement,"

After occupying the bank's lobby until ejected by police, the demonstrators then advanced to re-occupy the Capitol building. This action was unplanned and the result of a failed attempt to blockade the square.

Led by a contingent of firefighters, more than 100 people forced their way into the Capitol building at around 1 p.m. Upon entry, several people, including two journalists and two medics, were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and obstruction. Protesters chanted in the Capitol's central rotunda for some time before withdrawing and joining the remaining protesters outside.

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The day ended with a press conference, where organizers gave a summary of what took place and predicted more and larger events in the coming days and weeks. Some were frustrated, others were elated, and still others were on the fence about the whole action.

"I really liked the energy that was there," said Anna Ogden-Nussbaum, an organizer for US Uncut. "I thought it was positive. But we didn't end up planning as well as we could have."

DESPITE SOME bumps in the road, the June 6 action marked an encouraging development for the ongoing struggle in Wisconsin. Representing the left flank of the existing movement, the organizers of this action included the local leadership of the firefighters' union, activists in AFSCME local unions, and leaders from the building trades, including the executive director of the Building Trades Council Of South Central Wisconsin.

Importantly, the action saw the emergence of a large group of militant rank-and-file workers. Those who attended the rally and subsequent actions were unwilling to accept the purely electoral solution pushed by union leaders and the Democratic Party, which has counterposed the attempt to recall six Republican state senators to building an active, fighting movement.

There were many victories throughout the day. But in general, the rally didn't unfold according to plan. Originally, the goal had been to block all access streets onto the Capitol Square with campers, fire trucks and tractors brought in from the surrounding area. In reality, only a few big vehicles showed up, and protesters were unsuccessful in their attempts at blockading the square.

Days before the action, a deal was struck with the mayor of Madison and city police which would have allowed the temporary blockade. However, the deal was broken even before the rally set off.

By the time the feeder march reached Capitol Square around noon, city police officers had barricaded all access streets in a coordinated action. A contingent of Union Cab drivers were asked to leave or risk arrest. The same happened to the driver of a large RV that was supposed to blockade State Street. AFSCME members who rode in on motorcycles also received tickets.

The police were also prepared for the planned occupation of the M&I bank lobby before protesters reached it. While a few dozen protesters were able to enter, they were quickly removed, and several were cited for disorderly conduct. The presence of the Cops for Labor group didn't prevent the police from being aggressive.

This unexpected resistance by police to the agreements they had made days before led to some disorganization, as there was no contingency plan in place when the authorities failed to keep up their end of the bargain. To make matters worse, communication was hampered by a lack of equipment. The resulting confusion led to several unnecessary arrests as well as unplanned actions, like the entry into the Capitol.

The failure to anticipate an aggressive response by police reflects confusion about the position of the cops and liberal Democratic Mayor Paul Soglin. The mayor and the police--if they ever had any intention of keeping to their agreement to tolerate the actions--clearly decided to try and sharply limit the protest instead.

NEVERTHELESS, THE rally proved to be one of the most militant actions that Madison has seen since Walker first declared war on public-sector unions in February.

From the start, demonstrators set for themselves the objective of blocking streets with vehicles, an escalation from previous protests. And both inside the Capitol and outside, the marchers showed a willingness to hold their ground in the face of aggression by police.

"Until now, we've been told to be super-passive about this situation," said activist Bridgette O'Brien. "I hope that this inspires people to be more pro-active, to take more risks, and to realize that risking arrest is not a bad thing."

When the group stormed the Capitol, O'Brien was arrested for reasons that remain unclear. She was one of the few people who actually entered the Capitol building legally. Following her unwarranted arrest inside the Capitol, a crowd quickly assembled to shout "shame" at the police officers who were dragging her away. The protesters physically blocked officers from using two different elevators to take O'Brien away for processing.

Many equally militant moments took place throughout the day. For the first time at a large rally, there was no chanting of "peaceful protest," or thanking the Democratic legislators who blocked a vote on Walker's anti-union law for several weeks by fleeing the state.

"I think this fight is honestly going into a more heated direction because of how imminent the budget bill is, and because of how awful it is," said Leland Pan, a member of Student Labor Action Coalition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "If we bring out more people, we can achieve that kind of momentum where even the cops, even Soglin, even Walker cannot shut us down."

Sam Jordan contributed to this report.

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