The first sign that all was not well within the movement was expressed in events surrounding the occupation of the Capitol. After the teachers’ sick-outs ended, the occupation was the most militant action in the protests and provided a focal point for the struggle. Beyond that, the Capitol was an important center of organization, where people could get updates on the status of the bill, get news of further protests, and debate strategy and tactics.
But over the course of the second week of protests, there was an increasing police presence. By Friday, February 25, the TAA was kicked out of their “situation room.” Two days later, at 4 p.m., the police tried to evict everyone in the entire building. This began a struggle that lasted until Thursday, March 3, when the protesters were finally evicted. Ostensibly, this was because the large crowds in the Capitol were littering the building and it needed to be cleaned. However, the activists involved in the occupation had set up a wellorganized clean-up operation. In reality, the eviction attempt was a political move by Walker and his supporters to put down the protests. Thus, it was vital for the activists to resist any attempt at eviction.
Recognizing the inevitability of such an event, activists in the Capitol democratically worked out a strategy for mass nonviolent direct action to resist the eviction. The plan was that a group of the most committed activists would blockade the ground floor. These people would be willing to resist arrest. One floor up was a crowd of activists who would go limp when asked to leave the building. The floor above would consist of observers who would leave when asked, but would remain if the eviction was reversed. This way, people who were worried about arrest could help add numbers to the crowd, as the police would first have to get through the more fearless blockade on the ground floor.
Unbeknownst to the protesters, the Democrats and labor leaders put forward a different strategy with Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs. In a mainly symbolic gesture, they decided that a small, preselected group would get arrested after everybody else left. This was decided with no regard for democracy. There were regular open mic sessions throughout the occupation with the purpose of debating strategy, but when it came close to the 4 p.m. deadline, Democratic State Rep. Brett Hulsey cut through the queue and monopolized the microphone with a speech saying, “And now I want you to do the most important thing in this campaign, which is to follow me out that door at 4:00.” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=_OhfrNdKOvc)
Outside the Capitol, demonstrators assembled to try to enter the building and show solidarity with the soon-to-be-arrested protesters. Instead, they were greeted by Brett Hulsey leading a group of demonstrators out of the Capitol with the nonsensical chant of “We’re leaving, not retreating!” This chant was half true, as the protesters were, in fact, leaving.
Fortunately, enough activists inside the Capitol were able to challenge Brett Hulsey’s strategy that the Capitol police were compelled to leave the Capitol open.
The Purpose of the Occupation
Behind these differing strategies were differing understandings of the purpose of the occupation. For the Democrats, the occupation was an accident. They were just trying to get people to the public hearing and things got out of control. Their goal was to return to normality as soon as possible, even though normality would mean the passage of the bill and the crushing of the labor movement.
In reality, the occupation of the Capitol served an important political purpose. It was an organizing center for the protests, a clear meeting place for political discussions, and most importantly a visible sign that this was not business as usual. It was the militant action of the sick-outs and the storming of the Capitol that compelled the Democratic senators to flee the state. If the occupation of the Capitol stopped, that would be a sign that the movement had run out of steam and the “Fab 14” would return. The confusion over the purpose of the occupation was reflected in its activities. While activists were willing to stage a mass sit-in on February 17 to prevent the state Senate from meeting, there was no serious attempt made to stop the state legislature from meeting, even when they voted to pass the bill. There was also no clear leadership to the occupation. After the public hearings ended, open mic sessions were set up for people to continue to air their grievances. These took on the role of decision-making bodies, but the lack of clear democratically organized structures meant it was easy for Brett Hulsey and his supporters to bypass any democratic structure and monopolize the discussions.
In order to win, it was not only necessary to maintain the occupation but to escalate the struggle. Fortunately, there was a solid contingent of activists, including socialists, anarchists, students, teaching assistants, and firefighters, who accepted this and rejected Brett Hulsey’s self-appointed leadership.
The TAA Waffles
The spontaneous nature of the struggle meant there was not enough time to develop an elected leadership to help give direction to the movement. The most recognized leadership force in the occupation was neither the radical activists nor Brett Hulsey, but the TAA, the union that had called the first protests. During the occupation, the TAA had a “situation room” inside the Capitol and was the most organized force there. Through the “Defend Wisconsin” website, the TAA was able to raise $64,000 in donations for the purpose of supporting the occupation. The way they would respond to the attempted eviction would have a major effect on how the occupation went.
On Friday, February 25, the TAA held a Stewards’ Council meeting to discuss “long-term” strategy in the event that they were asked to leave the Capitol. Unfortunately, events occurred a few hours before the meeting started and they were asked to leave the situation room. The TAA leaders in the Capitol complied instantly.
In response to this, the Stewards’ Council requested that the TAA Executive Board make a clarification on their stance regarding the Capitol occupation as well as their position on the SCFL motion regarding a general strike. While the Executive Board refused to say anything about the SCFL motion, they did state unequivocally that they would continue to support the occupation of the Capitol until the entire “Budget Repair Bill” was killed. However, as soon as the police asked people to leave the Capitol two days later, the Executive Board reversed their position.
At a General Membership Meeting on Wednesday, March 2, the TAA reversed the reversal of the Executive Board’s position. Yet the TAA marshals ignored the decision of the membership and instructed protesters to leave. Because of this waffling, non-TAA activists in the Capitol grew resentful of the TAA and it became easier for Brett Hulsey to position himself as the leader of the occupation.
The TAA leadership was far from the only force behaving erratically. The police union had supported Walker in the election but came out on the side of the protesters after the bill was announced. Extremely significantly, there were regular “Cops for Labor” contingents in the protests themselves, which was symptomatic of the widespread support and sympathy among rank-and-file police for the movement. At the same time, the police were being used to clear the Capitol. After the attempt to evict the protesters on February 27, the police leadership placed illegal restrictions on public entry to the Capitol during the daytime, when the Capitol was supposed to be open to everybody.
The police, army, National Guard, and prison system are not impartial arbitrators designed to keep the peace when struggles break out. While at times they can appear to be on the side of the movement, this is only because the pressure of the movement prevents ruling elites from using the police decisively in their interests. In the end, however, those institutions are on the side of the ruling class as a means to enforce its rule over the working class. The police are regularly used to crack down on protests and strikes, and they guard the property interests of the rich. Yet at the same time, the rank and file who make up these institutions is also part of the working class. This means that they have class interests that go against the role that these institutions are designed to carry out. Since the police are public sector workers, for a period of time in Wisconsin these contradictions became visible for all to see.
The Democrats and labor leaders argued that because the police union gave messages of support for the protests, the police as a whole were on the side of the protests. So their message to protesters was that it was necessary to obey the police so as not to “alienate” the general public that was supporting the struggle. Unfortunately, the real effect of this was to create illusions that the police would not crack down on the movement when things came to a head. Instead, it was necessary to warn the movement of the future role of the police and to try to win over the police ranks to the side of the protesters by explaining that their interests as workers were closer to the protesters’ than to their bosses’. The more forward-thinking protesters did make these appeals, which was one of the reasons the occupation lasted as long as it did.
Those who wanted to leave the Capitol regularly admonished their opponents to “be peaceful,” despite the fact that there was no violence throughout the struggle. Traditionally, violence in demonstrations is initiated by the police themselves, and the support of the police union for the demonstrators was a key reason for the lack of violence. During the occupation, the slogan “be peaceful” was distorted to mean “obey the police and leave the building.”
The confusion surrounding the role of the police was reflected in the actions of the marshals. A marshal is traditionally a fellow protester whose role is to guide rally attendees into the organizational tasks for the action and protect demonstrators from arrest. The marshals played an important role in the occupation going back to the February 17 sit-in, where they directed people to the necessary locations to block all entrances to the Senate chambers. They also circulated food, water, and most importantly legal advice in case of arrest. But during the course of the occupation, many of the marshals switched from protecting protesters from the police to collaborating with the police. The marshals regularly discussed with Chief Tubbs and acted, with Brett Hulsey, to get people to leave when the police themselves had given up on that. This is why it is important that marshals be democratically elected and accountable to the movement, rather than being appointed in a top-down manner by the union leaders.
Battle for the Capitol
Despite the combined efforts of Walker, the police, and the Democrats, the attempted eviction of the Capitol on February 27 failed and the occupation continued. In the days that followed, there was a protracted struggle between the protesters and the police. In response, Walker kept the building under illegal lockdown, despite the facts that it was a public building and that Chief Tubbs had promised the protesters the building would remain open during the day.
On Tuesday, March 1, the police began setting up checkpoints inside the Capitol, roping off areas that the protesters weren’t allowed to leave. The protesters challenged this by sitting just outside the permitted area. Unable to directly challenge the protesters, the police would move the ropes a few feet to the opposite side of the protesters. The process would then repeat. Through these actions, the protesters were once again able to challenge not only Walker and the police but also the Democrats’ attempts to demobilize the movement.
However, the protesters were faced not only with political difficulties but with material difficulties also. As the occupation went on, the process became increasingly exhausting. Without any prospect of long-term victory, personal obligations such as work, school, and family became more pressing, and protesters gradually trickled out. When groups of protesters left the building, the police also promised to allow an equal number of protesters to enter. However, the police periodically ignored this promise and the size of the occupation dwindled as a result.
One final effort to keep the occupation going was made on Thursday, March 3. This was the evening of the “No Concessions” march and rally initiated by the NNU and the Kill the Whole Bill Coalition. Activists inside the Capitol forced open an unguarded door from the inside. This was coordinated with activists in the “No Concessions” march to occur just as the march reached the Capitol, allowing hundreds of people to get back inside.
In response, the police tried once again to clear the Capitol. Once again, Brett Hulsey called on everybody to leave. This time, however, the crowd had already shrunk to the point where Hulsey couldn’t be effectively challenged. The occupation of the Capitol had ended. This shows graphically the rotten role of the Democratic Party, which uses its “liberal” image to sell out and betray any determined struggle by working people or oppressed people.
The experience of the occupation of the Capitol demonstrated the nature of the capitalist state. Ostensibly, the Capitol was a public building open to everyone, but when the public actually tried to use it, the police force and politicians of both parties made every effort to remove them. In the aftermath of the occupation, the building remained under lockdown. Metal detectors were set up at every entrance despite the fact that none of the protesters ever brought weapons to the protests. People were forbidden from bringing signs and musical instruments into the Capitol. The metal detectors were eventually removed when the government passed a concealed carry law allowing guns inside the Capitol. As of the time of writing, signs are still forbidden.
Occupations and Political Change
The occupation of the Capitol was part of a wider trend of occupations of public space as a means of protest. Many of the protesters in Wisconsin took inspiration from the Egyptian revolution earlier in the year that overthrew the dictator Hosni Mubarak. In particular, the occupation was seen as a parallel to the mass occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo, which was a focal point of the Egyptian protests.
Following the protests in Wisconsin, semi-revolutionary movements developed in Greece and Spain, which also centered on the occupation of public squares. In August, Israel was faced with a massive housing protest involving the setting up of tent cities across the country. In September, a group of activists taking inspiration from the protests in Wisconsin initiated an occupation of Wall Street in New York City, which rapidly developed into a massive, international “Occupy Movement.” The Occupy Movement was formed to express opposition to the political domination of the richest 1% of the population and to reclaim public spaces for the remaining 99%.
However, it is one thing to “reclaim” control of parks, squares, and public buildings. It is another thing to bring about effective political change. The potential power of the working class to shut down the economy and, further, to democratically manage the economy itself is the strategic key to achieving both major reforms within capitalism and socialist change. That is why it was necessary to escalate the struggle in Wisconsin through strike action.
While the occupation of Tahrir Square played a central role in the Egyptian revolution, it wasn’t the occupation, in and of itself, that forced Mubarak out of power. It was also the massive strike wave that shut down large sectors of the Egyptian economy, including the Suez Canal. Ditching Mubarak was seen by the ruling elite in Egypt as necessary to prevent the workers’ movement from emerging as the dominant power in the country.
In Wisconsin, the protests never advanced beyond the occupation of the Capitol, sticking to the “one day longer” strategy. This meant that, despite the best efforts of the more determined activists inside the Capitol, the occupation eventually withered away as activists got increasingly exhausted. To succeed, the militant actions inside the Capitol had to be supplemented by militant actions outside the Capitol. Had the much-discussed general strike taken place, even a one-day public sector general strike, it would have provided the movement with the energy necessary to maintain the occupation. More importantly, it could have escalated further to shut down the state and to force Walker to withdraw the bill or even resign.
With the occupation defeated, the movement was dealt a blow. Unless there was a move to ratchet up the movement through strike action, the movement would threaten to dwindle away, leaving protesters with no choice but to wait for the Democratic senators to return and for the bill to pass.