Holding the Capitol

01 Mar

An excellent first-hand account of the occupation of the Madison capitol, courtesy of Leighton Christiansen of the Graduate Employees Organization #6300:
On Sunday afternoon, February 27, I joined with several hundred union members and activists dedicated to keeping the Wisconsin Capitol building open, despite Gov. Walker’s promise to clear out demonstrators after 4:00 pm.

The police and troopers were now under orders to only allow one person in for every two coming out, in an attempt to whittle down the number of occupiers.

When I joined the end of the line at one corner of the Capitol square, the line stretched ahead of me for a hundred yards. Yet as the 4:00 pm deadline neared, the line behind me was getting longer if anything.

Out near the end of the line folks were chatting about why they felt the need to be at the Capitol, discussing recall elections, high-fiving picketers that walked by, and speculating on whether the Capitol would actually be cleared tonight.

As we got near the building the scene changed dramatically. Inside the last ten yards protestors were keeping up pressure on the officers, who up to this point have often openly sided with the protests, to “Let us in! Let us ALL in!”

Had they let us all in, there would have been several thousands in the rotunda.

There were also chants of “Whose house? OUR House!” expressing the anger of Wisconsinites at the obvious attack on basic democracy that Walker is pushing.

It became clear as we got near the door that after 2 weeks of protests, there are many strategies and many different ideas of victory.

Some union leaders are still out talking to members about the need to accept the wage and benefit cuts, but fight the attack on collective bargaining. This is despite the fact that, if the cuts go through as part of this manufactured budget shortfall, many union members will find themselves among the working poor. Among the rank and file workers who participated in the protests, the slogan “Kill the Whole Bill” is popular.

In the Capitol among occupiers and protestors, there are also differences in opinion on how to proceed. Some occupation marshalls were seen arguing with chanting protestors to stop trying to pressure the offices with the “Let us in” chant. So far the local officers have been friendly to the protest, but Walker has been hiring officers from outside the area and the state, whom he hopes will have been less affected by the protests and more likely to follow orders. The chanting not only shows our resolve, but forces the police officers to examine their role, and can be effective in bringing some them to the side of the protests.

I was one of the last few to get in before 4:00 pm. Walking in, I found my friend Miranda, a member of the Teaching Assistants Association (TAA), the graduate employees union at UW-Madison. She looked excited, but weary. She has been active in the occupation since the beginning, and has spent many nights in the Capitol.

She hugged me, saying “If you are gonna stay, we need to go up to the second floor.” And so we joined the TAA group up the stairs. At first I though we had left the first floor as part of a strategy to avoid being swept out in the first wave and putting up a stronger fight. As it turned out, a Democratic State Rep. Brett Hulsey, gave a speech and organized a good number of people to walk out of the occupation rather than force the police to act first, cutting our forces down. (

They were more than 100 officers inside, and many more outside. The last thing we needed were fewer protestors! If there are enough occupiers inside, the police will find it difficult to find to the resources to arrest and hold everyone, even for a short period. I have been an activists for going on 25 years and I have yet to be arrested. And while I was willing on Sunday, I sure wasn’t hoping for it.  Hulsey’s actions, by cutting our numbers, actually made it more likely that those who stayed would get arrested or at least a citation.

If you watch the video of Hulsey’s speech, you will see that his call to leave was far from universally embraced. However, even the sisters and brothers leading the TAA efforts were telling members, rather than holding a wider discussion, that they should leave when asked, but make officers escort them in order to make them right a citation.

Comrades from the ISO and other folks were arguing that we need a strategy to hold the Capitol and resist the police efforts to clear it out.

Clearly, there is a political leadership vacuum in the occupation right now, and there is a lack of space to debate these things out in the occupation itself.

Despite this vacuum, the energy remains high. Sitting with the TAA on the second floor, we chanted and sung from the 4:00 pm deadline to past 5:00. “Whose house? Our house!” was popular, as was a slightly rewritten chorus from the 1980s pop tune “Our House” by Madness. “Solidarity Forever” rang out a number of times.

The creative energy of the tens of thousands of people is clear. One call and response chant that went on for 20 minutes or so was:
(call) Power;
(response) Power;
(call) Power;
(res) Power;
(call) Power to Wisconsin;
(res) Power to Wisconsin;
(call) Wisconsin Power;
(res) Wisconsin Power!

With each repeat a new group of workers or citizens was substituted into the “Wisconsin” spot: workers, students, nurses, teachers, fire fighters, waiters, and dozens more. Folks called out their favorite groups for the next time around. There was good natured laughter when the caller fumbled and could not come up with the next group, or came up with something rhythmically challenging.

This was a great antidote to the rising tension in the rotunda: each minute after the 4:00 deadline occupiers were increasingly nervous that the cops would move. Plus, being on the second floor, it was not easy to see or hear what was going on on the ground floor, where more of the officers were located.

I got up to stretch and realized that the TAA group was the largest organized group, of 50 to 75, in the Capitol. And although we numbered 500 to 600, we looked small, in comparison to the thousands that normally occupied the Capitol. Among the occupiers was a state fire fighter officer, willing to get arrested.

Around 6:30 pm, it was announced that Republican state senator Dale Schultz was withdrawing his support for the Walker budget bill. The rotunda rang in celebration.

Shortly after this good news, our victory was was made clear. Though we looked small, we were large enough, and our energy was great enough, to convince police officials not to try to clear us out. Just before 7:00 the announcement came that we would not be forced out.

Again the rotunda echoed our triumph!

For the next couple of hours we moved down to the first floor, started claiming floor space, stood in line for pizza, gave interviews to local media, talked strategy, and celebrated.

Those who have been to Madison have talked about the new level of solidarity. I want to add that there is a new level of class pride.

My favorite moment of the night came after our victory: remember while thousands of us are occupying the Capitol, the janitorial staff are still in there working among us. The floors still need to cleaned! Around 9:00 pm, a janitorial worker drover her industrial floor scrubber (think zamboni without the ice) into the middle of rotunda, to clean it before we laid down to camp. As she was making her first circle, a chant of “Thank you!” started up.

The janitor started to smile. I cannot imagine that she has ever had 300 people watch her clean the floor on a Sunday night.

The chant continued, and as she came around a third time, she high-fived my comrade Ashley.

Now any worker who has worked with heavy machinery or industrial vehicles, my self among them, has a little flourish or trick they develop to make the work more interesting, or to show their mastery over the machine. Often we only pull these out when the boss is not around, or we are are alone completely.

As she finished her final pass, a tight circle in the very center of rotunda, the Capitol janitor turned the steering wheel hard over, did a tight 360, and shot out through the pillars, with a smile on her face.

The watching occupiers went wild.

Leighton Christiansen

It’s hard not to be inspired by this, to feel as if we were there, to feel as if what we’re participating in at Madison and in solidarity around the country is more a beginning than a path toward a conclusion.


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