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Looking Toward Wisconsin: An Interview With A Participant From Milwaukee
What follows is an interview with a comrade from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on the recent events in the state's Capitol, Madison, over a few hours away. For more information on what is happening in Wisconsin, check out the Burnt Bookmobile blog. Class war, don't cha know? Let's get to it.
MA: What is the situation in Madison right now?
I've only been in Madison during one of the days since the occupation and demonstrations started. I've known people who have spent many days there, who have slept in the Capitol building, and who have been going back and forth between Milwaukee and Madison regularly. People are constantly talking about the situation, so I have an idea that is generally up to date, but there is often a bit of a delay. At other times I'm hearing about things as they happen through friends, because word travels much faster than the reporting often does.
I can describe what my experience was there briefly on that day. I went on the first Saturday, the day when the Tea Party of Wisconsin had also called for protests to counter the occupation and protests taking place. About a couple thousand Tea Party protesters showed up, but they were dwarfed and drowned out by the fifty to one hundred thousand people who wandered through the streets, marched, inadvertently blocking traffic and rerouting it across the city, and took up most of the floor space inside the Capitol building. They were mostly ignored and made irrelevant, huddled into a corner of the back steps and yard on one side of the Capitol. I had expected the presence of the Tea Party to provoke and heighten tensions between the two sides, but not much happened in response.
Inside the Capitol building people had been hanging posters and signs on everything. As would be expected, there were chants and crowds of people banging on things. When hearing "This is what democracy looks like" chanted I'm usually horribly ashamed to be present, driven almost to the point of nausea, but this atmosphere sent a shiver down my spine. Despite the form of expression this took, I had the feeling that its real content was hidden, but still exposed through the collective force of the activity of these people. It expressed a feeling of being together as thousands of people who couldn't be fucked with, even if the parameters to express this were and are mostly pathetic at this point. It demonstrated that it is our activity that defines us. Otherwise, the contradiction of a movement that is both for and against democracy cannot be explained, as it physically prevents the democratic process. Democracy mitigates and disguises force relations by reducing them to a process and mere matters of opinion. It is the neutralization of force and thus of the conflict that is necessary for the elaboration of a politics, for one to take sides and act. We don't care what as much what people chant, but as long as they increasingly define their position they will increasingly come into an internal contradiction with democratic logic.
What was going on in these spaces had been going on for days and had therefore assumed a kind of routine or culture. So after witnessing it there wasn't much to do except to wander, meet and talk, eat food, hang out and occupy the space of the city along with the other thousands of people there.
As for what is going on currently in Madison, I've heard that Saturday the 26th has been one of the largest days of the demonstrations in terms of numbers. Though I haven't heard much about the situation on that specific day. There have been rumors and talk of eviction since this all happened, but the police Chief of Madison made an official statement that probably came as an order to be distributed from the Governor, declaring that the Capitol building was to be "cleared" for cleaning, which meant forcefully evicted if need be. A day after this announcement the police union made a statement to the media and gathered crowds saying that they stand with those occupying the Capitol and protesters, not with Scott Walker or his proposed legislation, that they would not be part of any eviction of these people, and that they would in fact be joining them in sleeping on the floors of the Capitol. This is all very weird. It no doubt allows certain illusions to persist, but it won't last long. It had seemed like the moment when lines would be more clearly drawn was fast approaching, making clear connections between this particular event, the inherent play of forces necessary to maintain everyday life and the function of the police, as a force of dispossession. We will not be surprised when the police are forced to act in order to attempt to maintain their role as the ones who make the threats.
On Saturday, word spread in various ways that the Capitol was going to be closed Sunday by 4pm and that everyone was going to have to leave. A couple hundred decided to leave to avoid risking arrest, but many hundreds more gathered and were determined to hold the space with the possibility of being arrested. Against the prospect of having to arrest hundreds of people in the Capitol, which would have been a bad move in the eyes of many thousands who had come to the Capitol in the preceding days, the police decided that they weren't going to arrest anyone. They encouraged people to leave voluntarily and that they would assess the situation "day by day." This all meant that as long as people stayed that the occupation would continue. It's still continuing now.
MA: Can you talk about what were some of the first events to happen? The sick outs for instance?
I first heard about the events in Madison sitting in a computer lab, when none of this seemed like it would last more than a day and it lacked a real quality for many people here. Earlier in the day there had been a relatively minor protest organized by teachers assistants, teachers and others. Nothing was surprising or out of the ordinary. Not until later in the week, when a walk out was called and three thousand people responded, did the unreality of the situation start to appear as if it wasn't going to so easily fade back to normal. After this there was always talk and rumors circulating. There was a giddiness that was held in common by people never expected to share anything. People, who before were just members of the crowd passing between work, class and their homes, suddenly had a vibrancy to them. Invisible dots that connected us became more visible.
I know a few who are teachers for MPS (Milwaukee Public Schools) and a number of graduate students who are TAs at the UW-Milwaukee campus. I don't have a very exact knowledge of all of the districts and specific schools that were shut down by the sick outs. All Madison public schools were shut down for at least four days. Then followed Racine, Milwaukee and a number of others I'm not as familiar with. Thousands have participated in the sick outs. Some of TAs and teachers have not shown up to a single class since the sick out started to teach, despite threats from the administration. Many of the public school teachers have gone back to work, feeling some obligation to their students and because it seemed that there was less purpose in sustaining the sick outs. It appears as very likely that they will be employed strategically, correlative to certain days: like a general strike, the day when the contracts for many public employee unions expire, or other possible events.
MA: What is the extent of the student walk outs? The occupations?
Accompanying the sick outs there have also been widespread and random walkouts, by high school students. They have been incredibly self-directed. We've heard about them taking place anywhere from any of the rural Wisconsin towns, Schools surrounding Madison, and a number of urban Milwaukee schools. The numbers and magnitude of this activity was severely under-reported and communicated, so we have a hard time knowing what exactly went on. We had randomly crossed paths with one group of about two hundred to three hundred kids who had walked out of a school called Rufus King, who just happened to be meandering through the UW-Milwaukee campus during the walkout which was happening there. They joined the occupation of Bolton Hall on campus to show support temporarily, but seemed less interested in assemblies or discussion. They wanted to be angry and how they expressed this was to walk for miles around the city, chanting, yelling and being unruly. No activity we have seen thus far has contained as much energy as these kids.
The occupations outside of the Capitol have been so far pretty minor. Though many students have been a consistent presence in Madison and many have been staying overnight, sleeping on the floor of the Capitol building, and taking part in meetings and discussions happening there. There was the GOP office in Madison which was occupied by members of a disability rights group called ADAPT, who it was rumored to have been joined at least temporarily by steel workers. There is a lot of talk about occupation, and much is expected to coincide or respond to the release of the new budget that happens on the 1st of March, this upcoming student day of action on the 2nd of March, and when the bill passes.
MA: If a general strike does break out, what do you think will happen?
A lot of people barely know what a general strike means in the US. We don't know what it means for an entire city to be shut down outside of a snow storm in Wisconsin. Perhaps there will be a snow storm and city workers will refuse to plow it. Most likely not. Union officials are quoted to have said in their endorsement of the general strike that emergency services would not be effected. Everything else run by public and potentially private industries as well will halt. One would assume that there would be marches and many people in the streets, with workplaces suddenly emptied of all their bodies, but it's unclear what exactly these bodies will do suddenly freed and functioning less properly. With the strike being contingent upon when the bill passes and the bill passing being indefinitely delayed, it's hard to tell or foresee an increase or lack of momentum that would change the effect of the strike.
Many people in general are planning. They don't want to sit and wait for the bill to pass to determine their activity. Meanwhile the rank and file of unions are being educated as to the what and how of a general strike. It's hard to fathom what this will look like without being heavily based on the image of how it has happened in the past. In this case, the past is innovative in responding to the nothing we're so familiar with, but this only goes so far. The situation must be open to more creative and critical approaches in order to respond to the specific modes of production and reproduction of capitalism in Wisconsin currently, so as to fulfill the general strikes threat of a force that refuses to function, making everything stop. I don't expect creative or critical approaches to this, but I have been surprised many times already in the past number of weeks.
MA: To what extent has the spirit of the Egyptian uprising been an impact on the demonstrators?
To the degree that some of the people involved have paid some attention to the events in Egypt and found them inspiring, this has contributed some amount of a feeling of a greater possibility here. It is doubtful that it a very large influence. There are many people who identify within leftist and radical discourses, who would have followed what was and is going on in Egypt, but the majority are normal ass people from Wisconsin who most likely learn about events from standard television news and other "mainstream" media. As someone who doesn't pay much attention to either I may be wrong.
MA: What are some of the limits of what is happening in Wisconsin? To what degree are the unions and the Democrats in control of the situation?
The situation is permeated with limits. It would seem that any potential rupture or large scale manifestation of people reacting to crisis, and thereby being the crisis, will manifest likely at first as a movement for the return to normal. It will be trapped mostly within the apparatuses and discourses which contain them, but also necessarily exceeding them through activity. There are obvious identifiable limits. There are the unions themselves, which in their structure play a role in preventing and containing the self-directed activity of those who work. There are dominant discourses for what constitutes politics or contestation, which prevent and contain how resisting or being in conflict can be thought and acted out. There is the whole of our present conditions which employ and condition the worker that must be struggled against. It is vague but true to say that the alienated being, the kind that exists as a person living in Wisconsin, must fight everything. But this does not mean that there is no specificity to the struggle here. At this point of just barely being started, the struggle is though mostly unacknowledged, in reality against everything that maintains the normal progressive development of Capital. The anti-austerity struggle here must determine barriers by conflicting with its conditions - by creating a language, culture and practice of a shared struggle.
It appears as quite clear that the unions and Democrats are acting as a response to a popular rage and collective force that necessitates they act in a way which maintains degrees of legitimacy. That these mere representations and structures lack the potency which corresponds to the actual abnormal activity of people here is not to say that they have no influence over the situation. They channel this rage into established politics, organization, identity, discourses which all inherently impotently respond to the situation specifically because they are and produce the dead end which we inhabit, this ever increasing lack of control over our lives.
MA: Have you heard or come across many people who are getting annoyed at the control the Left is placing on the events?
I'm surrounded by those who are always more than annoyed by the Left. I have not been in close proximity to the organization of the occupation in the Capitol, how marches are organized, etc. The presence of the Left is something that one is always alienated from. There is this feeling of being a member of mass to produce an image of power for ends other than yourself or your interests. There is a constant setting of the stage, the defining of what are acceptable terms, modes of conduct, the aestheticization of the event is often influenced most easily by those who can supply everyone with the same sign, with the same t-shirt, who take and make the image have a role of defining the event. But outside of this there is much self-directed and creative activity that contradicts these tendencies, and which will eventually come ever further into conflict with them.
We understand that activity itself has the ability to dissolve some of these subjective barriers and allows for people to be more than a member of a certain union for that certain union, a worker for work, a man for men, a student for school, etc. We can hope that this event to whatever degree creates a further crisis of subjectivity - that glimpses the abolishment of even more than the class, but the entire conditions and conditioning of the worker.
MA: Have revolutionaries been able to intervene or expand the revolt in any way?
It's at too much of an early and experimental stage to assess the effectiveness of our activity. People with much wider aims and intentions are participating in these events and they've been thrown into a fever pace in order to catch up, but it is perhaps not the best idea to go into much detail about specifics. Posters are made and widely distributed. Texts are written that analyze the situation, attempting to clear away as many inhibitions as possible with critique. But most of all, in these moments it is not words but actions which have and which will change everything, and which corresponds to a way of being in the world that we could call communism or anarchy.
MA: Any last thoughts?
Look to Wisconsin and see yourselves. Make it spread. Prepare for and create crisis.