Friday, 25 and Saturday, Feb 26
It is hard to remember which events happened on which days. Inside the Wisconsin Capitol Building everything was always dimly lit and coated with a strange mix of complete exhaustion and wild adrenaline.
I am now heading home from the amazing situation in Madison, inspired, energized, and hopeful. My nervousness about the outcome of the movement here is comforted by my first-hand experience with the commitment, creativity, broad-scope, and power of the movement that has coalesced in the 2-week occupation of the State Capitol Building of Wisconsin
I arrived Thursday night, as I wrote in my previous article, where house Republicans rushed through a vote on the controversial anti-union “repair bill” without hearing all the testimonies of Democratic lawmakers.
Instead of taking this as a defeat, we celebrated our power, taking the vote as an expected event. We let the anger at the way the vote was forced through inspire us to greater energy, to larger crowds on Saturday, and a large turn-out for civil disobedience on Sunday.
Friday saw an all-day open-mic in the center atrium of the Capitol. Speakers from various labor unions included auto-workers, steelworkers, teamsters, police, firefighters, teachers, and students.
Members of Iraq Veterans Against the War addressed the crowd, urging the National Guard to refuse any orders given to them by the Governor to act against strikers in the event that the anti-union bill passes the Senate.
Folks from all over Wisconsin came to spend the weekend in the occupied Capitol, and many spoke to the crowd. A public school teacher with 20 years on the job told the people assembled Friday she had worked for three other employers over her summer break to pay her bills. “And now I want to say to you: Don’t give up! Don’t give up at all!”
When the firefighters union and then the police officers union marched through on Friday, they were received with massive applause and chants of “thank you!”. The significance of their presence was two-fold. For one, having the police on your side is helpful when you have been sort-of breaking the law for two weeks, and it consistently helped the movement maintain its presence in the Capitol.
But perhaps more significant to the other unions present, both the firefighters and police unions were exempt from the legislation’s most opposed policy: taking away collective bargaining rights for all public sector unions for everything except minor disputes over wages.
So the firefighters and police officers who marched were not being affected, but they were standing with the others everyday, many after working 12-hour shifts, to fight to defend other workers facing assault by the Governor and Republican lawmakers.
Also sticking their necks out were the Democrats in the State Government. Their support of the movement and defiant speeches in the debates around the bill were celebrated universally by those occupying the building and by those who came to march. They were folk heroes of a sort, but they often were seen joining the crowds, coming down to make speeches, or allowing us to use their offices to coordinate the occupation.
Then there was the legendary “Fab 14”, the 14 Democrats of the Senate who have been in Illinois for over 2 weeks now to delay the vote on the anti-union bill, all the while devising a strategy to officially challenge the legality of the tactics used to ram it through.
I have never seen such a dynamic relationship between politicians and peoples’ movements. It perhaps bares similarity with the “dance” of power we read about in recent Latin American democratic states.
Friday night was a little quieter than the previous night, as folks caught rest in preparation for the major march on Saturday. Many worked on signs and banners, further decorating and personalizing, or rather, movementalizing, the Capitol.
Every wall in the entire Capitol was covered in posters, signs, notes, and decorations. Notes to those using the space were everywhere, telling folks where to find food, where to charge their phones, where to get medical aid, and where to find childcare. I came across a bottle of hand sanitizer that someone had taped to a wall, which accompanied the many signs urging folks to wash their hands and keep them sanitized to help maintain a healthy crowd.
Food was delivered constantly, much of it coming from Ian’s pizza, now a global legend of sorts. Ian’s somehow went viral via Facebook, and donations came literally from all over the world to them to support the occupation. They brought in tens of thousands of dollars in donations, several from Egyptians who were watching the movement unfold after overthrowing dictator Hosni Mubarak last month.
Other food was donated or paid for by the many organizations that were supporting us. Coffee was almost always available, as were granola bars, cereal, tea, and bread.
A medical station had been set up by a group of action medics (street protest/activist medics) and local EMTs and paramedics. The medic station was always packed with cold/flu medicine, vitamin C, sanitizer, and pretty much anything you’d need to treat basic to intermediate medical problems.
A childcare station was housed in a quiet area on the second floor of the Capitol, where volunteers hangout with young folks whose parents were participating in almost endless speeches, marches, meetings, interviews, and conversations. The childcare area was germ-free and kept very clean. You had to remove your shoes to enter and no photographs were allowed without permission from a parent or guardian. The walls were lined with drawings and posters, ranging from the quite political to fun, creative images.
Above the childcare area was a media room, where correspondents from major papers like the LA Times and Al Jazeera worked alongside folks from local papers and the activist press (such as myself). In the week before, organizers from the Teachers Assistance Association (TAA), who were more than instrumental in the background workings of the occupation, had setup a sort-of command center/situation room in one of the Fab 14’s offices. It was cleared out however and their operations shifted to a corner downstairs.
The second floor was the real center of the occupation, with many people’s sleeping areas covering the floor. Impromptu drum circles, concerts, speeches, and performances would occur almost constantly, but a relatively quiet period would be respected when folks started to turn in for the night.
At the center of the 2nd floor was a huge circle that looked down on the first floor atrium, where the open-mic was. At any point, one could see almost everyone who was in the building, as most spent their time looking over an edge down onto the atrium.
A typical day started with a few hours of relative quiet, followed by the beginning of music/speaking on the open-mic. Then around noon marches would spontaneously arrive to the doors, marching through the center of the atrium to massive cheers. This would happen almost every half hour.
Saturday started with trickles of people coming to the Capitol, and by noon thousands had packed the building, with many more thousands outside. The marches through the atrium Saturday were gigantic, with hundreds of firefighters, police, teachers, steamfitters, plumbers, and teamsters marching through.
Outside snow had started to fall, and a massive AFL-CIO rally was being held on the steps. Crowds marched in huge circles around the massive Capitol, both on the inner sidewalk and on the streets and sidewalks across the lawn. Estimates from the police and media suggested the crowds reached from 70,000 to 100,000 people, making it possibly the largest protest in Wisconsin history.
I can’t express enough the level of energy one felt everywhere they went. Every 3 minutes inside there was a massive roar, followed by clapping, cheering, horns, drums, and yelling. This went from 11:00 am until almost 9:00 pm every night. A constant celebration of social power. No one could escape that feeling.
Saturday night ended with a smaller crowd than anticipated staying the night inside, as many went home to dry up after hours in the cold snow.
Around 9:00 p.m., a major meeting was held by the TAA, student organizers, union reps, and others who were interested in making a plan for the next day. Meetings often lasted late into the night.
Others rested up: Tomorrow would be a big day, the day we had been told that the orders would be given to the Chief of the Capitol Police to move us out of the building. However, the police had already expressed their total opposition to moving us out, and had stayed inside with us the last night to ensure this. Some of their strongest spokespeople would stay with us again Sunday night.
Many were unsure if we would be moved or not, and a mild anxiety crept over the room. But we were powerful and confident that no matter what happened, it would be a victory. Plans were being drawn to ensure that result.