Inspired perhaps by what was happening in Egypt, the spark for Wisconsin’s protests came on February 11th, when Gov. Scott Walker threatened to call in the National Guard to crack down on workers upset that their bargaining rights were being taken away. Labor and progressive groups were driven to action, and within a week there were over 100,000 protesters filling the streets of Madison, and occupying the state capitol building. It proved to be bigger than anyone would have expected.
Maine State Senator Diane Russell visited the demonstration, saying “I can’t explain it, but there is something magical happening in Madison. I was awe struck.”
Six thousand miles away, February 11th was an even more momentous day. Weary but jubilant protesters on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and other Egyptian cities celebrated the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, the autocrat who had ruled over them for more than 30 years and amassed billions in wealth at their expense. “We have brought down the regime,” cheered the protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the center of the Egyptian uprising. In calendar terms, the demonstrations in Wisconsin, you could say, picked up right where the Egyptians left off.
I arrived in Madison several days into the protests. I’ve watched the crowds swell, nearly all of those arriving – and some just not leaving – united against Governor Walker’s “budget repair bill.” I’ve interviewed protesters young and old, union members and grassroots organizers, students and teachers, children and retirees. Believe me, the spirit of Cairo is here. The air is charged with it.
It was strongest inside the Capitol. A previously seldom-visited building had been miraculously transformed into a genuine living, breathing community. There was a medic station, child day care, a food court, sleeping quarters, hundreds of signs and banners, live music, and a sense of camaraderie and purpose you’d struggle to find in most American cities, possibly anywhere else in this country. Like Cairo’s Tahrir Square in the weeks of the Egyptian uprising, most of what happens inside the Capitol’s walls is protest.
Egypt is a presence here in all sorts of obvious ways, as well as ways harder to put your finger on. The walls of the capital, to take one example, offer regular reminders of Egypt’s feat. I saw, for instance, multiple copies of that famous photo on Facebook of an Egyptian man, his face half-obscured, holding a sign that reads: “EGYPT Supports Wisconsin Workers: One World, One Pain.” The picture is all the more striking for what’s going on around the man with the sign: a sea of cheering demonstrators are waving Egyptian flags, hands held aloft. The man, however, faces in the opposite direction, as if showing support for brethren halfway around the world was important enough to break away from the historic celebrations erupting around him.
Similarly, I’ve seen multiple copies of a statement by Kamal Abbas, the general coordinator for Egypt’s Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services, taped to the walls of the state capitol. Not long after Egypt’s January Revolution triumphed and Wisconsin’s protests began, Abbas announced his group’s support for the Wisconsin labor protesters in a page-long declaration that said in part: “We want you to know that we stand on your side. Stand firm and don’t waiver. Don’t give up on your rights. Victory always belongs to the people who stand firm and demand their just rights.”
Faced with a bill that could all but wipe out unions in historically labor-friendly states across the Midwest, labor leaders knew they had to act – and quickly. “Our very labor movement is at stake,” Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer of Wisconsin’s AFL-CIO branch, told me. “And when that’s at stake, the economic security of Americans is at stake.”
The man in the picture above is Muhammad Saladin Nusair, an Egyptian engineer. He wrote in his blog, “If a human being doesn’t feel the pain of his fellow human beings, then everything we’ve created and established since the very beginning of existence is in great danger. We shouldn’t let borders and differences separate us. We were made different to complete each other, to integrate and live together. One world, one pain, one humanity, one hope.”
Even the Wisconsin Professional Police Association came out in support of the people:
“The law enforcement officers from across the state that have been working at the Capitol and have been very impressed with how peaceful everyone has been. As has been reported in the media, the protesters are cleaning up after themselves and have not caused any problems. The fact of that matter is that Wisconsin’s law enforcement community opposes Governor Walker’s effort to eliminate most union activity in this state, and we implore him to not do anything to increase the risk to officers and the public. The costs of providing security can never outweigh those associated with a conflict. Law enforcement officers know the difference between right and wrong, and Governor Walker’s attempt to eliminate the collective voice of Wisconsin’s devoted public employees is wrong. That is why we have stood with our fellow employees each day and why we will be sleeping among them tonight.”
University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism student Talya Minsberg described the communal aspects of the demonstration, especially how the protesters cleaned up after themselves and organized themselves, in similar way to what was happening in Cairo’s Tahrir Square…
In the last week and a half, a staggering number of wet, muddy shoes have stomped through the rotunda. Over 30,000 pieces of pizza have been delivered to the Capitol address. And the walls, composed of 43 varieties of stones from around the world, are covered in signs denouncing Governor Scott Walker’s proposed budget bill.
One would assume the place is a dump. But the iconic building, the only capitol ever built on an isthmus, is being kept clean thanks to some organization and a list of trash rules written in permanent marker. The floors are clean, the stairs are spotless and the bathrooms are stocked with toilet paper and soap.
Volunteers have been working to keep the place clean from day one, Damon Terrell, a 19-year-old Madison student explained. “People were scrubbing the capitol floors with sponges before we had mops… it’s about respecting the space and looking after each other.”
There was an obvious need for supplies. Helpdefendwisconsin.org set up a specific donation system for “capitol building clean up.” The donations are put straight to use. A small corner on the third floor of the capitol has become trash clean up central, with instructions, supplies, and plenty of snacks.
In Young-Hyman’s words, that means “We take better care of this capitol than Scott Walker, that’s the message.”
The cooperation of protesters has been incredibly inspiring, Young-Hyman said, and the volunteers help spread the peace. The second rule states “Wear sanitary gloves and post a peaceful protest sign on your back or front.” Those peaceful signs are spread inside and outside the capitol, “Remember, this is a peaceful protest,” the signs read. With hundreds of thousands of protesters, only a handful of protesters have been arrested.
Peace activist Cindy Sheehan had this to say about Wisconsin’s budget debate…
Wisconsin is facing a 137 million dollar budget deficit — that’s 137 troops. If Obama brought home 137 troops and gave the savings to Wisconsin, that problem would be solved! Indiana is facing a one billion dollar shortfall for 2012-2014, and that would mean that 1000 more troops home would solve Indiana’s budgetary crisis.
My own dear state, California, is facing a WHOPPING $26 billion deficit — because we’re a whopping state — Obama, bring home 2600 more troops and fork over the savings to us. As a matter of fact without listing each state individually, 44 states plus the District of Columbia are in financial crises right now with a projected cumulative short fall of 125 BILLION dollars. Bringing every troop home from Afghanistan, and the remaining troops from Iraq would save $160 billion plus, because the troops are coming home, cancel that $36 billion contract Boeing just received to build 179 tankers for the War Machine. Take the savings and reinvest that money back into the states and a real jobs’ program.
Our sons and daughters, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters and friends would be home from the killing deserts and there would be decent paying jobs for them when they returned.
Even the Superbowl champion Green Bay Packers weighed in against the bill. It seemed everyone but the wealthy were against this bill. Meanwhile, another protest movement aimed at protecting the poor and middle class was starting up, preparing for a February 26 Day of Action based on the large Uncut protests in England, “targeting corporate tax dodgers.” Although 59 percent of Americans opposed extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest, according to a Bloomberg poll, Congress cut the taxes anyway, at a cost to this country of $800 billion over just two years. That alone would cover all the budget problems of all the states.
The US Uncut organization issued a statement which read:
“We demand that before the hard-working, tax-paying families of this country are once again forced to sacrifice, the corporations who have so richly profited from our labor, our patronage, and our bailouts be compelled to pay their taxes and contribute their fair share to the continued prosperity of our nation. We will organize, we will mobilize, and we will NOT be quiet!”
During the middle of the protests, the billionaire Koch brothers quietly opened a lobbying office in Madison just off the Capitol Square. Their political action committee contributed heavily to Gov. Walker’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign, while spending millions of dollars on an attack campaign against his opponent. Such a blatant display of wealth dominating politics made it obvious that they were in control, and they were the ones calling the shots. After all, it is them and other billionaires and corporate executives that would benefit from the proposed legislation that the majority of the people opposed, while everyone else would suffer.
In the end, the people lost. Governor Walker sneaked the offending legislation through, and signed it into law. But this was a lesson to America, that the system is too corrupted to respond to the will of the people. No change is possible within the system. The system itself has to change, it’s no longer a democracy.
And it was also a lesson in building community and uniting various people and causes for a single issue, setting the stage for something bigger.
The Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison became the first “occupation” in what would later become a national movement.