We Went to Madison: Now Let’s Talk

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We went to Madison for our own reasons and had own experiences, but we want to speak less in terms of autobiography; our emphasis here is on the movement and all those present… What follows is a selection of a conversation we had in our efforts to move from individual experiences to broader implications.

Trevor: There was so much energy the first day we were there. Folks were hopeful and I had a sense of solidarity amid the mass of bodies. Yet, I didn’t feel like we were seeing positive consequences. It seemed that the people in the rotunda were satisfied with the adrenaline. They focused on what they ‘didn’t want,’ and that was their endpoint. The next day when the bill passed, the energy was gone. I became despairing. So often we sit back and take what politicians do even when we disagree; here, people had chosen to act! When the bill passed anyway, I felt like activism doesn’t mean anything, but this didn’t last. My hope was renewed when Will pointed out that folks weren’t giving up. The occupation continued.

Julianne: ”Being there was it’s own world, most relateble to four seemingly disconnected happenings in my life. It struck me as a cross between:

  1. a lock-in in a building like Grand Central Terminal in New York City complete with rambling crazy people
  2. a model UN conference with different groups working really hard day and night, cracked out on caffeine, not talking much to other people working really hard
  3. a homecoming rally with painted faces and signs for the teams, and
  4. a well orchestrated church event with lots of donated free food and people going way out their way to contribute in whatever way they could.

I went to Madison with the intention of being in solidarity. In the school, we had ideas about how to make this a successful protest: agree on a set of demands; encourage people to stay in the capital -emphasizing the importance of staying when asked to leave; and, discourage in-fighting, favoring unity in larger common goals. After 11 days of presence in the building, it seemed that there was no central organization. In a lot of ways this was beautiful. Individuals showed up and participated how they saw fit. People figured out things that needed to be done and made them happen. People took responsibility for themselves and had each other’s backs. There was a prevailing sense of shared struggle, however, we didn’t hear one common goal articulated.
Jerehme: Some of what I noticed echoes what Julianne picked up on. There was a shared idea of occupation, but no overarching unity of ideological purpose. We saw anti-capitalism signs, signs lamenting this as an attack on the middle class, others decrying corporate control of government, and many critiquing Walker directly. It appeared that we were seeing an Autonomous Movement. In such movements, roles are assumed as people identify needs rather than being predetermined. Individuals organize based on their own desires. These movements lack a strong degree of coherence for the same reasons.
In the last 2 hours of our stay we met a member of the teaching assistants’ union who was one of the organizers helping to direct responses to various situations like the attempted lockdown. Talking with her, revealed some underlying structure for the event. A small fraction of leaders from different unions worked to develop some consensus on what happening and what to do. We asked if we could join in the planning, but were told no. Though that could have been disappointing, Our group felt this was understandable and fit with the autonomous nature of this effort; the people who propel the action control the terms on which it takes place. I felt the people who had come to advocate for themselves had an idea of the boundaries of the protest. Being told no defined that boundary. We didn’t feel excluded, rather, we felt that by accepting this, we were respecting the decision of the autonomous decentralized collective movement.

Snow Leopard: Surrounded by the roar of our fellow protesters while simultaneously viewing screens showing republican representatives spouting inanities about the absent democrats, I was struck by how much I don’t know about the legislative and political process. I wondered how what we were doing might intersect with the political process. Is it effective to have groups of people standing around chanting? How does this type of action affect political processes? In Egypt, the masses of people gathering and chanting led to the fall of the government. The effects of similar actions in the U.S. seem much less clear.
Julianne: In some ways, it was a mass presence, not a mass protest. While the openness of the event left space for broad involvement, it was also frustrating at times. Being there didn’t get us access to information any quicker than we would’ve from having cell phones and Internet. It was a resource-intensive choice to go, a big deal, I’d never seen anything like it and I learned from the experience. Would I do it again? Not sure. There is value in staying home and interacting with world events where you are. It’s also important that there are times when you feel called to go.

Will: How might we see this event as a success? We came into this thinking there needed to be unity in demands. We came away realizing this isn’t completely so. Some of the goals that emerged required unity, others did not. For example, to have “success” regarding the occupation of the capital, we needed enough people to be there and paying attention so that when the police told people to leave, there would be an active and actionable choice to stay.
This unity was present, and people did stay. Success? For those whose goal was to rebuff the effort to eliminate collective bargaining rights, was it a failure since the bill passed? It would seem so; however, the diversity of ideological desires and agendas present meant that it was possible to be successful and unsuccessful simultaneously. Their efforts did not end with the bill passage. Some of the efforts have shifted into recall campaigns. Other efforts are following up on judicial challenges to the legislation. Wisconsin may choose not to have a republican governor again for awhile. The momentum continues.

The Madison movement may have set precedents for future actions. The biggest difference in this protest com- pared to others I’ve been to was that those who showed up were mostly “normal people,” not just “activist types.” When we looked around, it wasn’t just college students and old-time lefties; nurses and firefighters, janitors and secretaries, farmers and teaching assistants took turns sleeping on the marble floors. The ripples of this are yet to be fully appreciated.

About Will Adams

Will Adams is currently enrolled in School for Designing a Society.
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