Working In These Times
Wis. Capitol Protesters Avoid Eviction, Win GOP Lawmaker to Their Side
Two major victories for cross-class crowd opposing Gov. Walker's proposed unionbusting bill
MADISON, WIS.—“We were supposed to get kicked out about two and a half hours ago. That didn’t happen. So we started dancing.”
That was the succinct explanation offered by Josh Kissel, a sophomore at UW-Madison, about what he and a crowd of around 600 were doing past closing time inside the state capitol Sunday night, despite an earlier order from capitol police that protesters would be forced to leave. “Oh, yeah,” he added, almost as an afterthought, before rejoining the massive dance party on the first floor of the capitol. “And one Republican Senator, Schultz, decided he would vote against the budget repair bill. Which means [if] two more senators [oppose it]...this bill fails.”
It’s been a wild two weeks in the state capitol here, where protests have been ongoing against the Budget Repair Bill proposed by Gov. Scott Walker (R), which would all but end collective bargaining for the state’s public employees.
But no night has been more raucous than Sunday, when protesters may have wrested the advantage in the fight over the bill from Walker by scoring two major victories within a matter of hours: overwhelming police orders to evict them through their willingness to commit civil disobedience, and convincing the first Republican lawmaker to withdraw support from the bill. (Schultz had not officially confirmed his opposition as of Monday morning.)
A huge crowd gathered in the capitol Sunday afternoon, despite police efforts to limit the number who entered. As 4 p.m. approached, there was a slight sense of nervousness among some protesters, as well as an air of defiance.
I had expected only a small group of hardcore protesters to still be in the building at closing time. I later realized that I was partially correct—the remaining protesters were, indeed, hardcore. But after two weeks occupying the capitol, they were anything but small. There was no die-hard group of a few dozen holding the line in the capitol for everyone else; all 600 had become die-hards, with many of them ready to be arrested.
Debbie Konkol told me that she was one of them. She has been a pre-school teacher for over four decades in Madison. Leaning against the marble railing of the rotunda, she explained that she had been living in the capitol off and on for the past two weeks.
“I am completely exhausted. I teach all day and come here all night,” she says. “But I am absolutely elated,” she says. “I never really wanted to get fingerprinted in my lifetime,” she explains, referring to her potential imminent arrest, “but it would be worth it.”
Konkol joined in with one of the protesters’ favorite chants, the call-and-response classic, “Show me what democracy looks like! / This is what democracy looks like!” Behind a young woman with buzzed blonde hair operating a megaphone, students danced alongside clergy as they shouted their response.
The chant grew in popularity during the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle—which is fitting, because there is an important similarity between Seattle in 1999 and Madison in 2011: Protesters seems to transcend typical class boundaries.
Shortly after it became clear that the protesters would be holding the building for at least one more night, they linked arms in a massive circle around the rotunda, and began singing. Immediately to my left was a firefighter wearing his helmet, arm-in-arm with a college student on his left and a teacher on his right.
The scene was reminiscent of the “teamsters and turtles” marches at the WTO in Seattle, when blue collar rank-and-file union members joined with environmental activists and marched together to shut down the proceedings. It was their ability to form alliances and march together—literally, arm-in-arm—that helped the anti-globalization protesters emerge victorious, shutting down the WTO.
Those alliances run deep in Madison, as steelworkers and firefighters and police have taken turns sleeping in the capitol every night alongside students to ensure they are not removed. It is an example of cross-class solidarity rarely seen in this country.
As rumors spread throughout the capitol that police were not going to arrest anyone, the chanting and drumming grew increasingly boisterous. At an impromptu press conference, Wisconsin Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs said that as long as protesters remained nonviolent, “there'll be no one asked to leave the Capitol tonight."
As that confirmation trickled up to the protesters’ floor, the energy seemed to reach a fever pitch.
Soon after it was clear that protesters had won an important victory in holding the capitol, a grad student organizer on a bullhorn miraculously managed to shush the crowd to a dull roar. It was clear only a huge announcement would warrant a tempering of the energy, so protesters obliged her.
The other side of the rotunda could not hear her, so the protesters around her repeated every sentence, yelling back to the other side. After the enormous pressure put on him, “State Sen. Dale Schultz”—she waited for the echo—“has withdrawn his vote for the bill!”
The capitol erupted. Students and teachers embraced each other, crying; construction workers in hard hats pumped their fists in the air, cheering. A barrel-chested Teamster I had met earlier in the week threw his arms open and locked me in a bear hug.
Still squeezing, he proclaimed, “Madison is a heroic city.” He let go, and rejoined the dance party behind him.
An enormous banner hanging from the second floor of the capitol had read, “We Need 3 Courageous (R) Senators!” Three protesters quickly scrambled up the steps, pulled up the banner, and changed the number to “2.” The screaming and chanting grew deafening.
Somehow, immediately after the banner was altered, a grinning man holding three boxes of pizza ran into the capitol. Police had not allowed any food to enter the capitol for several hours, despite—or perhaps because of—the images shown round the world of citizens of all 50 states and around the world, including Egypt, ordering pies for the capitol occupiers.
But somehow, in the wake of the two key victories, the pizza embargo had been broken.
“These are from Florida,” the man stated, the dazed grin on his face suggesting a complete and total sense of incredulity. Protesters dug in, and the slices quickly disappeared. The party continued at several decibels louder than is healthy for human hearing, but some protesters began to hunker down in their claimed spots on the marble floor. It was clear they were going to be there for a while.
The fight in Madison is far from over. There are still two Republican state senators the bill’s opponents need to win over. If protesters’ numbers flag in the coming days, the police could still evict them.
But for now, the capitol—and the moment—belongs to the protesters.