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Remembering the 2011 Wisconsin Uprising

  • Protesters occupy the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, late into the night March 9, 2011.

    Protesters occupy the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, late into the night March 9, 2011. | Photo: Reuters

Published 23 February 2015

On February 14, 2011, citizens from the U.S. state of Wisconsin rose up, eventually peaking at around 100,000 people, to protect the collective bargaining rights of union workers and against Governor Scott Walker.

It's not every day that I get a text message from Tom Morello suggesting I get to Wisconsin as soon as possible. When it happens, I take it seriously.

Tom and I have been involved in a number of schemes together, from small performances for student activists organizing to drive military recruiters off their campuses in 2006 to a four-mile, 10,000 person unpermitted march through Denver that blockaded the entrance of the Democratic National Convention. But this was a new one.

"What?" I responded. It was February, 2011, and I was in the room of my newly rented house working on songs for my new album, "Ordinary Heroes." In that album I tried to give a snapshot of the United States from the start of the financial crisis to the rise of the Tea Party, overshadowed by stories from times when people in this country fought together for radical notions of social justice, equality, and freedom.

"You gotta get out there," he responded. "Shit is doing down."

My world had become quite small due to my avoidance of Facebook, but I had just joined — partially as a result of the Egyptian revolution and the seemingly unavoidable need to be in-the-know constantly of developments in the Arab world, and partially because I didn't even know which of my friends were dating. So it goes.

Videos of high-school students walking out of school in Madison had been circulating on that addictive social network, but I had not paid much mind to them. I was bitter, and the excitable part of me that saw long-term social change represented in moments like this, was tired.

Since 2003, I had been on the front-lines of the anti-war movement. 2010 was a strange time period for us  the war in Iraq had vanished from the media while the Afghan war never really existed in the media at all. After years of very large and very significant protests, the "Surge" in Iraq, a George W. Bush last-ditch effort to create the level of security needed for the multinationals to start working in the country, proved to actually work. The U.S. "wound down" the occupation and rushed to claim the war was over before all the ISIS blowback started.

I was critical of the anti-war movement's ignorance of actual developments in Iraq, and of their tendency to exaggerate the situation with typical, expected rhetoric. We were in denial about the Surge because the story we told was that the war was a failure. When casualty rates dropped dramatically in 2009, it was like the anti-war movement didn't even notice, our rallies continued with little change in slogans, statements, and demands. Some groups, of course, were on point. They were not the powerful ones.

The war was long, and the movement against it even longer. Both seemed to have been failures in regards to their own stated goals. On top of that, the Christian-Right, most boldly represented by the new Tea Party, seemed poised to shift the center even further to the Right as they consolidated political and rhetorical victories. And they were hungry for attention as an anti-war public filled the voting booths to push the Republicans out and usher in a new era of false-hope.

The election of Obama came after eight-years of war and war policies, pushed by the people who had written the Project for a New American Century and who were now playing their grand chess game on the world stage at the expense of hundreds of thousands of peoples lives. When the celebratory curtains drew closed after the lovely electoral speeches and repeated pledges of "change," the population went back to its normal state of expecting to be let down. There was plenty of historic context to back up such feelings.

Texting from Los Angeles, Tom had just returned from Wisconsin, where he had performed in front of thousands of people on the steps of the Capitol building, which had been occupied by hundreds of people since Valentine's Day. The government, under pseudo Tea Party Republican governor Scott Walker, had pushed through a massive piece of legislation attacking unions, public sector workers, students, poor people, and women. All at once.

When thousands of people filled the Capitol to testify against these bills, the line was three-days long. The tired, bored Republicans got up and left, but the Democrats stayed to listen. The result was an almost accidental occupation that then became intentional. Soon, a fairly unheard of act of mainstream political action, the Democrats of the state Senate would flee the state to delay the required vote and would become heroes to many.

Thousands of people responded to the news of the occupation and of the Democrats protest.  Carried via social media, local news, text messages, and first-hand stories in town, the word got around fast. Within a few days, a "Capitol City" had emerged, and Wisconsin had become one of the most important situations in the world.

People from all over were sending messages of support and solidarity, through photographs or Facebook posts. Ian's Pizza, right down the street from Capitol City, had to close their regular business during the occupation to handle the unbelievable amount of online orders they were receiving for delivery to the occupation — almost 1,000 pizzas a day. They had to cap their daily sales at $25,000 as orders came in from every state and dozens of countries — including Iraq, Egypt, and Tunisia.

Tom saw the big vision, and he wanted to urge other radical musicians to go help provide entertainment, perspective, and energy to the people inside. It helped that I was also an independent journalist. Employed at the time in the construction trade, I could easily find the time off to take the trip in the cold months of February, when work slowed down.

"Ok," I responded back. I began looking into the situation and started to get the feeling in my stomach that something big was upon us.

That same week, Egyptians had brought down powerful dictators through massive street protests and battles, as Tunisians had done a few weeks before that. Everyone was glued to the footage and stories pouring out of Tahrir Square, wishing they could participate in such a beautiful struggle. I understood that the situation would have ramifications across the region that could change the whole landscape of the anti-war movement and could shake the foundations of power in the Arab world — powers closely linked to long term U.S. military and energy-sector investments in the region. But I hadn't yet understood that it would also soon have ramifications across Europe and in the U.S., and in my own life.

"I want Scott Walker to know that he is not just dealing with the people of Wisconsin," a young Egyptian wrote in a Facebook message sent to those inside the occupation, "he is dealing with the people of the world."

I put out a call on Facebook to ask friends for donations to get me a plane ticket to The Badger State. My largest donation, $250, came first. It was sent via PayPal by a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan who had tried to organize his unit to refuse deployment. Unable to get their backing, he had made the hard decision to stay with them. As their Staff Sergeant, he thought the Afghan people would be safer under his anti-war leadership than under some other, less thoughtful commander. As a soldier, he was on a mission to occupy, but personally, he was on a mission to save lives. War rarely makes sense.

Within a few hours of my post, I had all the money I needed. I bought my tickets, packed my guitar and some clothes, and contacted old friends in Madison to get a sense of what I should be doing when I arrived. I also picked up a $60 flip-camera from Craigslist on which I later filmed the head of the Capitol Police union announcing their refusal to arrest protesters inside the occupation. That video reached 160,000 people in three days, and all I did was upload it.

I landed in Milwaukee and took the bus to Madison. An old friend, herself a folk musician and activist, helped me get situated in the city, and told me to "go to the Capitol" and I would understand what to do. I walked through town and saw the large spire of the Capitol rising up above the small city. Soon I was walking up the steps to one of the north entrances, interested to see what the protests were actually like.

Opening that door was an unbelievable experience. Banners hung everywhere. Food was being given away for free at a large table to my left. To my right, a group was singing protest songs together. In the center of the massive building, a young person spoke to the crowd on a megaphone. All levels of the building were occupied with a vibrant, colorful, hopeful air. Thousands of people crammed the halls and open-spaces, making signs, talking, doing interviews, having meetings, setting up a medical area, playing with kids, sleeping, waiting, texting, tweeting.

Every half-hour it seemed, a march of thousands of students or firefighters or teachers would come through the double doors and fill the building with fresh energy, anger, and hope. The whole space was completely alive.

Normally, this was my element. As a young person, I had gone to many massive protests against the global financial institutions, against the IMF and the World Trade Organization. I had helped organize huge multi-day "convergences" against the Free Trade Area of the Americas negotiations in Miami and against the Republican National Convention in New York. I figured I'd see old friends inside the Capitol, friends who had been in the streets with me back in the day and who may have similarly wondered up to Wisconsin to get a picture of this young movement.

I was wrong. I saw almost none of the expected faces. Instead, I saw Wisconsonites and students who had come to the state to study. I saw teachers, firefighters, healthcare workers, truck drivers, farmers, steel workers, and veterans of the Afghan and Iraq wars. I was a stranger here, one of the relatively few "outsider agitators" that Scott Walker had warned the population about.

Walker, himself an outside agitator born and raised in Colorado, was ushered into power with the financial help of the Koch Brothers, a then little-known-about duo of billionaires who had funded Tea Party and conservative campaigns across the country — and still do. The Kochs, who had no other connection to Wisconsin except maybe through their beloved Joe McCarthy, saw the state as little more than a dumping ground for ultra-conservative economic policies designed to consolidate corporate-power and cut-away at what little public sector services remained in this country. They were also outside agitators, and they were strategic, powerful, and opportunistic. Armed with sample policies developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), they set out to spread their influence through the backing of Republican governors and police chiefs, most notably through their role in writing the SB1070 bill in Arizona.

Since my blog is about folk music and politics, you would probably expect me to reference some song from the 60's or to talk about Wisconsin State Assembly Democrat Gordon Hintz, who passionately denounced the right-wing from the house floor that February, placed second in the Air Guitar Nation championships in 2003. I could talk about what it felt like to perform an intimate concert one night in the grand lobby of an occupied U.S. state capital building. But instead I want to emphasize that artists who are really invested in political and social change are engaged in it on many levels, not just in their art. We sing, yes, but we also listen, write, sit-in and fight.

There's no need to go into too many details about what happened in February of 2011 — they are available from countless sources, in articles, videos, blog posts, and stories you can hear from people you meet. Wisconsin had their 17-days, Egypt their 18, and the "whole world was watching." Things felt completely electric, possible, and potential. People literally dropped what they were doing and left work, walked out of class, and faced an unknown future as they stood in their place amongst those who felt certain that the time was now to move forward.

For the rest of that year, Egyptians continued battling in the streets to defend their revolutionary vision; fighting, dying, writing on the walls, tweeting, making satirical images and videos, praying. Having been finally moved from the Capitol, Wisconsonites debated next steps, considering options ranging from backing the local Democrats who had actually risked their jobs to support the protests, or continuing the movement as some sort of autonomous activist umbrella, setting up locations throughout the state and figuring how to hold the power they found inside.

For various reasons, and though some groups chose to abstain, the Democrat-option seemed like the lowest hanging fruit. Unfortunately, it was poison. The big unions and their brass helped turn the energy of the Capitol occupation into a recall election, hoping to oust Scott Walker and bring a Democrat to power who would reverse the dozens of pieces of anti-worker, anti-poor legislation passed under him.

Though there was logic in this, it was a huge gamble. Abandoning the street power they had asserted during the 17-days in February was a major risk, but a significant number of those dedicating their lives to this moment got behind it. It failed, and by the end, their collective power had been completely diffused.

Egyptians learned a similar lesson at the five-day battle of Mohamed Mahmoud in November of 2011. Visiting Cairo months later, I saw the breathtaking mural stretching along this "avenue of the Martyrs," its metaphorical and literal images spanning Egyptian history from ancient times to the present, binding their reality in its context of Pharaohes, dictators, and attempted greatness under the once hopeful hands of Abdel Nasser.

"You left us here and went to the elections," was written in massive letters across hundreds of feet as it stretched from Tahrir Square along the wall of the old American University. This message was directed at the Muslim Brotherhood and their decision to pursue political power on their own without any real attempt to include secular, radical, Salafist, or Christian revolutionaries.

In the first week of June, 2012, Scott Walker won the recall election and defeated the Democrat’s attempts to push him out. A week later, Mohamed Morsi came to power under the Muslim Brotherhood. The Ikhwan had joined the revolution in masses after the initial protests pushed beyond all expectations and took Tahrir Square, and had brought millions to the streets with them.

Though initially hailed as a victory, the Morsi-period was highly contested amongst the revolutionaries who had cast Tahrir Square and the Egyptian revolt on a global stage. Those still clinging to the Ikhawn's version of the revolution would have their hearts broken a year later when the military reestablished its rule of the country, killing over a thousand more people in the process and arresting many Brotherhood leaders.

2011 was over, soaked in American tear-gas, stained with blood, and filtered through good ole boy networks of U.S. Democrats and Egyptian military commanders. The symbols of hope had fallen, confirming the anxious expectations of the bitter and crushing the dreams of the hopeful.

But, now the cat was out of the bag; whether we view Wisconsin and Egypt as failures, or as successful attempts to do something very hard, no one can ignore the long list of explosive, hopeful, angry situations that followed them; the Indignados in Spain; Occupy; the Gezi uprising in Turkey; the bus-rate protests in Brazil; Ferguson. We feel the connection because it is there.

Revolutions don't always bring about "the revolution," we have learned. Likewise, reformist politics, especially those attained under the structures of the status quo parties, rarely solve problems beyond cynically symbolic gestures. Revolutionary comrades who criticize any notion of electoral framework often have very few answers to solving real problems in the real world, especially for the people most impacted by poverty and violence. Likewise, Liberals who, as Frederick Douglas put it so succinctly so many years ago, "want rain without thunder and lightning," are living in a fantasy world, somehow believing that significant changes can come without real struggle.

I had spoken with many in Wisconsin and grew close to them, as I did in Egypt. What struck me was that in both places, where strangely linked timelines roused so many to action, there lacked a radical, alternative mass organization of any sort that could handle the tasks presented before the people. Whether a community-wide mass assembly like the APPO presented during the Oaxaca uprising in Mexico in 2006, or the contemporary coalitions of leftists parties best exemplified by Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, both epicenters were empty of such forces. This weighed heavy on their results as those with the established capacity took center stage to the scattered, energetic masses.

The great railroad strikes that began in my hometown of Baltimore in 1877 were an amazing display of class solidarity and anti-capitalist resistance. But when they reached the west coast, the strike turned into mobs of white workers beating up Chinese workers in the streets. Spontaneous action can be beautiful, but it can rarely sustain the level of organization and power needed to combat the very great forces of corporate capitalism.

What 2011 taught us is that if we are serious about challenging injustice and winning, we have to try new ideas, new ways of organizing, new concepts of struggle, new battlegrounds, new language, and new ideas. Our radical circles are filled with highly-contested, often failed-ideas. We have to break away from the ideological boundaries we have set up for ourselves that prevent us from thinking clearly about moving forward.

As Syriza takes on the Troika and Kurdish revolutionaries drive ISIS out of their lands, many questions remain. What are possible ways forward, and what will work in our locations? Can mass organizations succeed in an era of dispersed economic and political power spread on a global level? Can small organizations find ways to act in unison with each other enough to actually tip the balance?

And I will leave you with this one: Is it more radical to fail with moral purity, or to succeed through strategic, measured compromise? And that's a serious question. The answers to this are not universal, rather, they are tightly-bound to geography, cultural identity, political realities, and historic contexts. Whether we like it or not. 

Ryan Harvey is a musician, writer, and activist from Baltimore, MD. Since co-founding the Riot-Folk Collective in 2004, he has shared his songs and stories of social movements in over twenty countries in North America, Europe, and Africa. His writings have been featured in The Nation, Truth-Out, and other digital publications. He will soon be blogging on international folk and protest music for teleSUR. 


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