A new film called Wisconsin Rising is screening around the country, the subject, of course, being the activism surrounding the mass occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol in 2011. I recommend attending a planned screening or setting up a new one, and discussing the film collectively upon its conclusion. For all the flaws in Wisconsin’s activism in 2011 and since, other states haven’t even come close — most have a great deal to learn.
The film tells a story of one state, where, long ago, many workers’ rights originated or found early support, and where, many years later, threats to workers’ rights, wages, and benefits, and to what those workers produce including education in public schools, were aggressively initiated by the state’s right-wing governor, Scott Walker.
The joy and inspiration created by the public resistance to that threat were intense. The occupation, the singing, the marching, the creative props and protests, the donations for pizza from around the world, the parades, the rallies, the concerts, the firefighters and police officers spared in the legislation but choosing to join with the rest of the public anyway, the growing crowds, the growing awareness of the power of nonviolent action, the legislators bringing their desks out onto the grass to meet with constituents in the cold snow or fleeing the state to deny the governor a quorum, Fox News propaganda showing a violent rally supposedly in Wisconsin but with palm trees in the background, the Wisconsinites hauling plastic palm trees to the capitol, the high school students joining the occupation on behalf of their teachers, Governor Walker unable to step outdoors without protest — all of this energy and activity is accurately conveyed in Wisconsin Rising. For over three weeks, Wisconsin’s capitol was occupied, and the reminders of it are still frequently visible there.
The Wisconsin legislature rammed through its horrendous legislation despite the public opposition. The film does not hide that awful defeat. But the same would have happened had there been no opposition. The question is whether the opposition did any good and whether it could conceivably have succeeded had wiser decisions been made — and whether power was tapped that could be enlarged still further. I think the answer to all of these questions is yes.
In the film we see people withdrawing their money from a bank that funds candidates like Walker. That can and should continue.
We see a choice made to withdraw energy from protests and demonstrations and nonviolent resistance and camps and marches and a general strike, in order to put all of that energy into recall elections. The lessons of all of those labor songs sung at all of those rallies are not followed. Instead, an effort is made to pretend that the system works and that slightly better personalities in positions of corrupt power will solve everything. Massive popular energy went into a contest where it could not compete with massive money.
What might have happened instead? Energy could have stayed with the occupation, drawing inspiration from and giving inspiration to activism around the United States and the world. I remember Michael Moore pointing out at the Wisconsin occupation that 400 people in the United States had as much money as half the country, and pundits compelled to note that that was true. An education campaign about the division and concentration of wealth would have been time better spent. Creative means of keeping working people’s wealth with working people, rather than handing it over to Wall Street, would have been wiser use of euphoric enthusiasm.
An effort might also have been made to build even wider state-level solidarity by recognizing the state of Wisconsin, like the other 49 U.S. states, as a victim of a federal budget gone off the deep end of plutocratic plunder and militarism. The federal government does not support education or any other human need, at home or abroad, in remotely the way that it could if it curtailed spending on war preparations, giveaways to corporations and billionaires, or both. What if Wisconsin were to convert from weapons to peaceful industries, tax major federal tax evaders at the state level instead, and call for a Constitutional Convention to recriminalize bribery? What if the money Wisconsinites dump into elections went into setting up and supporting independent media outlets in Wisconsin instead?
What if three enjoyable, energizing, inspiring weeks of effort wasn’t seen as a record long action, but as the opening preview of much longer struggles? What if the pressure were to build back up, and a different direction were chosen this time, the direction of nonviolent resistance rather than naive compliance? Wisconsin, at least, has done its warm ups. Most states are still in the locker room.