Lessons of the Capitol struggle

March 9, 2011

Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, a member of the Teaching Assistants' Association at the University of Wisconsin, looks at political currents in the occupation of the Capitol.

THE ROUND-the-clock occupation of the Wisconsin state Capitol building ended March 3 amid debates on how to take the struggle forward.

For 16 days, the occupation had been the most visible symbol of the remarkable series of protests for workers' rights in Wisconsin and a focal point for solidarity from around the world. At a more practical level, it had also been the space where activists met one another, debated strategies and ideas, and organized.

That occupation played a crucial role in maintaining the momentum of the protests after Madison teachers ended their sick-out and returned to work during in the second week of protests.

With the occupation now over, in part due to Republican Gov. Scott Walker's illegal restrictions on access to the building, activists are regrouping and developing new strategies. But the last five days of the occupation--in particular, the debates over when and how to stay or leave--revealed differences that will inform the strategies to come.

THE DIVISION appeared most sharply on the first day that the police ordered the Capitol cleared--Sunday, February 27--and the last day of the 16-day continuous occupation, on Thursday, March 3. On February 27, this divergence took the form of struggle for democracy within the movement as much as for the Capitol itself.

A crowd gathers in the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda to hear speakers talk on the people's mic
A crowd gathers in the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda to hear speakers talk on the people's mic (Angela Payne)

Democrats, most labor union leaders and staffers, and the activists who saw themselves as running the Capitol occupation directed everyone to leave as ordered by the police at 4 p.m. on February 27--a pre-selected group was to stay behind to be arrested with a carefully constructed media message. According to Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs, labor leaders and the police had negotiated this exit plan--though this was news to many union members and activists involved in the occupation.

But a core of activists argued for--and organized--a different strategy: pack the building with people refusing to leave at the deadline in the hopes that if the numbers were large enough, no one would be arrested, and the building would remain ours. This was the strategy of networks of activists formed inside the building, including a group that subsequently began calling itself A People's Movement.

Activists in the latter camp tried hard to organize a democratic discussion about what to do in the form of a town hall meeting in the capitol rotunda. But as the 4 p.m. deadline approached, the microphone became tightly controlled by its self-appointed MCs--one of whom said he was "just doing what he was told," though he couldn't say who had told him to take charge of the microphone.

At one point, as I tried to reach the microphone to argue that if enough people stayed past 4 p.m., we needn't be arrested, I found myself surrounded by a small crowd of young men--some from the University of Wisconsin (UW) College Democrats--shouting "Be peaceful!" as they shoved me away. In what had become the parlance of many who saw themselves as being in charge, "peacefulness" reflected not whether an action was violent (none of Wisconsin's three weeks of protests have been), but rather, whether it conformed to the media strategy determined by the Democrats and the upper echelons of organized labor.

The effort to get people to leave quietly at 4 p.m. was presented as "the plan" by fiat, irrespective of what people in the Capitol desired to do. Sauntering past the long line of people waiting to speak, Democratic State Rep. Brett Hulsey occupied the microphone for 12 minutes, telling the crowd, "And now I want you to do the most important thing in this campaign, which is to follow me out that door at 4:00."

Hulsey's effort was joined by activists who saw themselves as running the building. These people repeatedly made it seem a foregone conclusion that anyone left behind at 4 p.m. would be arrested. One of them got on the building's PA system at 3:50 p.m. to inform everyone that the building would soon be closing--an "activist" announcement that was indistinguishable from those made by the police.

What actually happened was very different. When hundreds of activists, including many union members, chose to stay past 4 p.m., the Capitol Police made the call to avoid arrests by leaving the building open. This happened in part because groups of activists managed to overcome the undemocratic restrictions on access to the microphone and urged people to stay.

One particularly decisive speech came from Katrina Flores, a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate student in Curriculum and Instruction, a lifelong Wisconsin resident, and a longtime campus activist with MEChA and other organizations. Flores was part of a group of activists that met in the Capitol over several days and headed into Sunday with a plan to try to keep the building open. As she explained that evening:

A very small group of us--students, community members, people we organize with culturally--felt like our voices were not being heard, particularly that people of color were not being represented, working-class people were not being represented...So we set up a town hall meeting every night [in the capitol]....

And today, we decided it was time to continue to get derailed or to start acting. The people making decisions--cops and "leaders of the protest"--have been very efficient at concentrating people in a very small space. We needed to do something different from what we were being told and escorted to do.

THE PLAN that the group developed--correctly guessing that the police would be preventing people from entering the building as the afternoon wore on--was to bring crowds of people inside the Capitol to the building's entrances to protest the doors being closed to the outside. The contingents chanting "Let them in!" helped to focus anger at the Capitol being closed, rather than acceptance of the restrictions coming from the police.

These protests were combined by arguments made to the crowd in the rotunda to stay past the 4 p.m. deadline. Flores explained:

The rhetoric was, "Leaving is not retreating." And I don't know when it changed from, "Hell no, we won't go" to "Leaving is not retreating," or who made the decision.

It became very clear that there had been a straightforward negotiation with the police about how we were to leave at 4:00--and not even a negotiation, I would say a cooperative planning with the police about how to leave.

They were going to have a band playing as pre-selected people who were to talk to the media after being arrested were brought out. And then we were supposed to go have pizza together--and that, to me, is a spectacle. It's not a protest, and certainly not representative of the reclaiming of this space....

Everyone on that mic was preselected and allowed to skip in line to get on that mic--including Democratic representatives, union leaders, organizational leaders. Everyone had been given a script. If folks wanted to stay and get arrested they could, but it was strongly suggested to get up and leave.

And it became very clear in that moment that "peaceful" had been redefined as giving up quietly, just as "democracy" in this country has been redefined as capitalism.

When we heard that, we all looked at each other knowing we had a job to do, and the universe opened up a way. They didn't want to let me on the mic--they were very hostile, they wanted to know what I'd say. Finally, I told them I just wanted to do a spoken word, and they let me on.

And I told people we had to remember what this protest was about, which was holding the Capitol. People needed to hear that. Right away, there was a new energy. Everything they'd been doing for two weeks mattered, and it was time to make it matter again.

ON THE last day of the occupation, the same constellations of forces emerged. By this time, Walker had kept the building under illegal lockdown for four days, beginning the morning after the February 27 victory. This was in violation of an explicit promise made to protesters by Chief Tubbs that the building would reopen as usual the following morning.

By Thursday, March 3, the core of activists inside the building had become fewer than 50 people as thousands of others--in violation of the state constitution--were kept from joining them. Activists knew they could not hold on indefinitely in these circumstances, so discussions inside the building turned to how to resist the police clampdown.

Over several days, activists tested the limits of the police and developed their own confidence and initiative. One important step came on Tuesday. As UW-Madison sophomore and Student Labor Action Coalition member Scot McCullough explained, after police set up "checkpoints" in the building, a small group of activists moved to sit just outside the allowed area.

This provoked debate inside the building about whether resisting police directives threatened the occupation--a debate that ended after half an hour, when the police decided to respond by moving the rope barrier so that those sitting in were once again inside it. Then the activists moved to the other side again, establishing that even though they were flagrantly violating the rules, the police did not intend to arrest them.

As McCullough explained, "It was big because they said, 'You can't cross this line,' and then we did, and they didn't do anything...We showed that the police don't have supreme rule here."

On Thursday, March 3, activists hatched a more daring plan. Using their ingenuity with careful coordination with other activists outside, a small group inside rushed an under-guarded door and held it open at the precise moment that thousands of people had gathered for a "No Concessions" rally on the other side. Hundreds of union members streamed into the building in the minutes before police managed to shut the doors again.

The mood was jubilant--for about 15 minutes, before Rep. Hulsey once again returned to lead people out so that the building could close on time at 6 p.m. This time, the group inside advocating to stay was too small to effectively influence what happened. As most people filed out, what remained was a core of only about 20 activists, faced with a court order ordering them to leave (and ordering Walker to open the building more fully on Monday--but only during the daytime).

Late that night, after hours of discussion, the small group remaining in the capitol marched out singing, greeted by hundreds of supporters. The 16-day occupation of the Capitol ended.

NO ONE can fault activists--some of whom had been in the Capitol continuously for four days or longer--for choosing to leave on March 3. As the Capitol became more restricted, holding the space increasingly became a source of exhaustion rather than of creativity and networking, making it hard for activists to formulate longer-term strategies.

In that sense, the decisive moment was not the decision to leave late on Thursday night, but the long series of decisions up to that point to accept every restriction made by the police, and the lack of an effective plan to resist outside the courtroom Walker's illegal restrictions on entry.

The direct action that had brought hundreds into the Capitol only hours before the occupation ended, the successful occupation on the Sunday night, and the smaller actions inside the Capitol last week showed that police orders could effectively be resisted. But this lesson was absorbed too late to bring sufficient people into the Capitol to hold it in the face of the decision of much of organized labor to scuttle the occupation.

The fault lines exposed in the Capitol debates will reassert themselves in the post-occupation strategies for taking the movement forward. The unions' strategy is to focus everything on efforts to recall eight Republican senators (Walker himself won't be legally eligible for recall until he has served one year of his term). The idea is that special elections can elect Democrats who will modify Walker's attacks on collective bargaining, maintaining unions' legal existence--and their campaign contributions.

But it will be practically impossible for the 14 Democratic state senators who left the state to block legislation to stay on the run for that period. And a single Democrats' presence in the state Senate will provide a quorum for that body, allowing the Republican majority to vote on budget cuts that will devastate schools, health programs and public-sector workers' salaries.

A recall effort could put pressure on Republican legislators to back away from their harshest demands. But it is no substitute for the kind of struggles--the teachers' sick-outs and the occupation of the Capitol--that have propelled the struggle forward.

And in practice, the push for the recall strategy is explicitly being counterposed to action. Thus, the recall strategy relegates the hundreds of thousands of people who have protested Walker's so-called budget repair bill to an almost wholly passive role. At best, they will be phone-bankers and signature-gatherers for an electoral campaign focused in eight relatively conservative districts.

Instead of building the mass movement to stop the cuts now, the Democrats and union leaders are willing to take the risk of the cuts going through, based on the hope that they'll recapture the state Senate in a few months' time. But given that Walker will remain in office and the State Assembly will remain in Republican hands, it will be almost impossible to reverse those cuts once they've passed.

The cost of the Democrats' strategy of counterposing recall elections to mass action can already be seen, from the constant--and frankly condescending--admonitions to "be peaceful" to the attempts to carefully manage a media message. In fact, union leaders preferred to split the March 5 rally rather than let Michael Moore speak from their stage, for fear that he'd call for a general strike. This reflects a deep distrust of rank-and-file workers and the power of their self-organization.

But that power is what has propelled the movement forward over the last three weeks in Wisconsin. This has been seen from the regular mass demonstrations to the self-organization of Capitol City, when the hundreds of us sleeping in the Capitol managed to run it better than normal. It was direct action by large numbers of people who occupied the Capitol, spearheaded by teachers.

The most effective strategy for building a new labor movement will involve organizing the direct power of the masses of angry, hopeful, frightened and inspired people whose lives Walker is planning to wreck. The teachers gave us a glimpse of that power when they shut down schools for four days and led the blockade of the state legislature that launched the occupation of the Capitol.

But all this hasn't been enough to stop Walker. A disruption serious enough to make Walker and his corporate backers think twice would have to involve mass action that could shut down multiple sectors of the state at once.

That vision can sometimes feel impossible to realize, even to those of us who favor it. But occupying the Capitol for over two weeks sounded just as crazy--before we did it. The question being posed to all of us in Wisconsin is whether we are going to make the most of this historic opportunity and try to organize, from the bottom up, a labor movement that fights--or fritter it away because of the fear that things will get out of hand.

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