“A brilliant spark that will fly through the air and set the vapors of our insurrectionary imaginations alight.”John Jordan, founder of Reclaim the Streets
From February 14 to early March 2011, opponents of Governor Scott Walker’s legislation to strip civic unions of collective bargaining rights filled Wisconsin’s state capitol with a non-stop protest that became one of the largest labor mobilizations in the U.S. in a generation. Though the protests were ultimately unsuccessful, they heralded a major watershed in the labor movement’s resistance to austerity cuts.
Protests began shortly after Gov. Walker proposed his legislation. On February 14, a group of unionized teaching assistants from the University of Wisconsin at Madison led a Valentine’s Day-themed protest at the capitol, joined by labor and student groups. Labor-student collaboration became a model for the remainder of the organizing, as state employees used their workplaces and community roles to contact peoplenot immediately affected, widening the struggle and helping provoke a political crisis in the state.
Wisconsin state law allowed for the capitol to remain open as long as public debate continued about a pending bill. The teaching assistants noticed that the senate had failed to set a limit on the number of speakers on a floor debate about Walker’s bill, and so signed up thousands of people to offer testimony. This kept debate open indefinitely, as well as the capitol itself, and eventually turned the occupation into a twenty-four-hour speak-out, with a microphone set up in the middle of the rotunda. The microphone served as an invitation to everyone to be heard at the protest, and triggered an important shift in tone and approach. What had begun as a simple defense of workers’ rights now shifted to become an inclusive forum for multiple groups hurt by budget cuts. The boldness and persistence of the tactic galvanized thousands of people to join in, and within days 70,000 people were marching to oppose the Governor’s budget.
Protests were also well-coordinated with progressive and Democratic legislators. Three days after protests began, fourteen senate Democrats fled the state of Wisconsin to deny the GOP a quorum. This bought political space and time in addition to the literal space and time that had been seized in the capitol building.
Additionally, the occupation focused attention and support by connecting with other movements and national progressive media networks. The Egyptian revolution was in full flower at the time and lent energy and inspiration to the Wisconsin encampment. Protesters carried Egyptian flags, and several Egyptian revolutionaries sent support in the form of pizzas ordered from local business to be delivered to the capitol. Solidarity pizzas then rolled in from across the world. The occupation was also one of the first to use continuous livestreaming to document itself.
Eventually, Governor Walker’s legislation was passed in a legally suspect parliamentary gambit, and the occupation forces switched to an electoral recall strategy.
Buoyed by both a proud Wisconsin progressive tradition and a national sense of disenfranchisement, the Wisconsin Capitol Occupation effectively transformed an iconic public space into an accessible forum to voice multiple grievances against budget austerity in America. The protests became a symbol of how and why to fight back against budget cuts, as public employees connected with community members.
The occupation of the capitol itself provided a focal point for protesters trying to unite broad communities against the budget cuts and created a space for diverse groups to work together to solve common problems. Holding the space and filling it with sound and people united diverse voices, while also giving them a way to be heard.
Although the occupation did use drums to quite a useful effect, the cliquish “drum circle” was never the model. Instead, everyone was invited to participate. The microphone at the center of the Capitol rotunda was a microcosm of the rest of the protest. Participants spoke through through the mic and could hear their voices amplified by the movement that surrounded them.
The protests gained strength by placing public employees front and center, emphasizing their role in the community. Madison teachers were some of the first to join the initial protests en masse, and their connection to students and parents helped humanize a struggle otherwise trapped in the abstraction of budgetary issues and collective bargaining. The visuals of firemen in full gear on the steps of the capitol gave the protests a heroic and all-American legitimacy.
The dedicated nonviolence of the protests made cooperation with police easier and kept the capitol open longer. Madison and capitol police supported the occupation by refusing to enforce illegal orders to shut down the capitol, and even sent off-duty officers to sleep in the capitol to show support.