Black Lives Matter protesters occupy the Wisconsin Capitol after the police killing of the unarmed black teenager Tony Robinson, March 2015. Photo: Andy Manis

From Wisconsin to Baltimore: which lessons learned?

  • May 7, 2015

Protest & Policing

The Wisconsin uprising of 2011 provides valuable lessons for the Black Lives Matter movement across the US, especially about the directions not to take.

In response to the police killing of Tony Robinson in Madison, Wisconsin, a movement appears to have taken root in the state. This happened around the same time as the movement against the ‘right-to-work’ legislation — a continuation of what started in the spring of 2011, with the occupation of the state’s Capitol building and massive rallies contesting the abolition of public sector collective bargaining as proposed in the controversial Act 10 legislative bill — has grown exhausted and dejected.

What lessons does the Wisconsin uprising have to offer to the Black Lives Matter movement? I believe that when movements arise, they inherit, alter, improve, accept or reject aspects of past movements. This happens through peoples’ experiences, conversations and debates, among other things. In this sense, the Wisconsin uprising provides an example that is probably worth considering in terms of its mistakes, rather than its successes, which are well documented and mostly agreed upon.

Don’t narrow the focus

In 2011, the Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, initiated an almost across-the-board, scorched-earth policy of austerity. In addition to limiting public sector collective bargaining, he proposed massive cuts to healthcare and education. Despite this full-scale assault, the unions were all about collective bargaining. Only unions such as National Nurses United and the Industrial Workers of the World, as well as migrant rights groups like Voces de la Frontera and Union de Trabajadores Inmigrantes, loudly opposed all cuts.

Marty Beil, the president of one the largest public employee unions in Wisconsin, told the media: “we are prepared to implement the financial concessions proposed to help bring our state’s budget into balance, but we will not be denied our God-given right to […] collectively bargain.” At the same time, the leadership for the state’s largest teachers union said: “this is not about money, we understand the need to sacrifice.”

In other words, the union leadership were willing to accept, prior to any negotiation, slashes to wages and benefits, but were not willing to give up their role of representation. This narrow sectoralism had the effect of taking what should have been a working class-wide fight against austerity down to a fight about public sector union representation.

An effective response to the police brutality that led to the murder of Tony Robinson in Madison or Freddie Gray in Baltimore should involve establishing wider connections to struggles against other forms of racial disparities in the United States. After all, this is not just about the racist police murder of any particular young man, but about a deeply entrenched oppressive apparatus that is systematically enforced upon people of color.

Thankfully, it looks like Black Lives Matter protesters in Madison are already avoiding the trap of considering their cause in isolation. Among many other issues, organizers have been highlighting the wider racial disparities that exist in the city specifically and in the country in general by actively aligning themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Respectability” for whom?

During the opposition struggle against Act 10 in 2011, an aura of respectability and concerns about public perception functioned as a constricting and demobilizing force upon the popular movement. Rather than judged upon their effectiveness, tactics were often assessed on the basis of speculations about what the nebulous “public” would think about a particular action.

When this line of respectability was crossed, the groups and people involved in transgressive actions were condemned — as happened when Voces de la Frontera disrupted a State Senate hearing in the summer of 2011. Articles were published by other people involved in the movement, through the local culture newspaper, chastising the activists for being ‘aggressive’. In this way, disagreements and conflicts that existed within the movement were played out in the media. As a side effect, a vague conception of the “general public opinion” had thus become a key factor in deciding whether or not to pursue specific actions.

But what was this “general public”? Although it was never openly expressed as such, the concept implicitly made reference to prospective voters. But a truly effective movement cannot think like this. We are not politicians: we are (usually) a minority of active citizens with fluctuating degrees of (mostly passive) support from the wider society. While the aim is to increase this passive support and move it into growing active support, we shouldn’t conduct ourselves as if we are simply marketing a new toothpaste.

Police are not on our side

One of the most interesting curiosities of 2011 were the Cops for Labor groupings at the protests. These groupings involved current law enforcement and prison guards in the state of Wisconsin who opposed Walker’s bill, even though they were exempt from it. Despite that opposition, it perhaps needs explaining how one could be allied with labor, yet at the same time be directly involved in the brutalization and incarceration of countless numbers of working people (disproportionately people of color). Only a labor movement that prioritizes its representative function over everything else, including advocating for the interests of working people society-wide, could stomach this.

The general acceptance of Cops for Labor, complete with cringe-worthy chants of “thank you!” from protesters, contributed to a false sense of security. An attempted university occupation provoked an expected police response and crumbled when hostile officers issued ultimatums. Some Capitol occupiers sincerely believed that Cops for Labor would intervene if the police in the Capitol building tried to kick them out. Additionally, thousands of mostly white Wisconsinites, chanting appreciation to police in a state with the highest incarceration rate for black males in the United States, was probably an alienating experience for many people of color.

The illusion of the police as allies to the movement may seem unlikely for anti-police brutality protesters, but similar illusions are being encouraged by some today. The former chief of the Ferguson Police Department attempted to march with protesters and the state trooper later put in charge of Ferguson’s policing did the same, much more successfully — to the applause of many protesters.

But the police didn’t do this because they agreed with the protesters that Michael Brown was murdered by Darren Wilson — they did this to calm down the nerves, to pacify the crowd, and to open a dialogue with protesters in order to bring the situation back under the control of the authorities. There is no shortage of wannabe leaders who aim to be mediators between the protesters and the repressive forces of the state, and police efforts like these encourage the rise of such figures.

Election detours

The desire for a “seat at the table” (whatever the cost), the insistence on not alienating potential voters and accepting the legitimacy of state authorities whose task was to keep us in line — all of these factors fed into the biggest mistake of the 2011 workers’ mobilization in Wisconsin: the recall elections to remove governor Scott Walker and the rest of the Republicans who had supported Act 10.

When fourteen Democratic Party state senators fled Wisconsin to block quorum on the vote for Act 10, it was like hitting a giant pause button on a political solution to the situation. Protests grew, while tactics advocated by a minority of participants, such as strike action, gained strength. However, those who advocated a strike were held back by the failure to achieve majority support. As the fourteen state senators returned, efforts towards provoking a recall election overwhelmed everything else.

The movement, once defined by massive protests, a 24/7 occupation of public space and what was essentially a wildcat strike by Madison teachers, quickly transformed into a never-ending spectacle of failed election drives, questionable legal strategies and lowered expectations.

Starting off with a State Supreme Court election defeat, all energy was directed into electoral politics. High-profile outsiders such as the President of the AFL-CIO trade union, liberal civil rights celebrities and various others, stood in front of the still large crowds facing the Capitol, and urged everyone to vote Walker and the Republicans out.

Union members, who until that point had been spending hours making phone calls to get people to the protests, now spent their time on the street gathering signatures for potential recall elections. Factions within at least one of the unions in the university that tried to organize momentum for strike action had their meetings overwhelmed with pro-recall factions, and they were drowned out.

In the end, only two of the six Republicans were recalled in August 2011. In June of the next year, almost sixteen months since graduate students had occupied the Capitol and started the Wisconsin uprising, Walker defeated his Democratic opponent in the recall election by about 170,000 votes.

The power in the streets

The power of the Wisconsin uprising was in the streets — and its real potential power was in the workplace. The first thing Walker did before passing Act 10 had nothing to do with potential recalls, but was aimed squarely at preparing for potential strikes. In other words, what really scared the Republicans (and the Democrats) were people ready and willing to disrupt everyday life and business as usual.

As an IWW pamphlet stated at the time:

The problem is that a recall takes our new-found energy and channels it into a drawn-out process in which we rely on politicians to act in our best interest. It is dis-empowering. A recall is telling people, “You can go home now, we’ll take care of it.” All that a recall can hope to achieve is to slow down the trend of constant cuts. We have to reverse the entire direction of things.

Today, the Black Lives Matter movement has a unique opportunity not just in Wisconsin but across the United States. With protests taking place nationwide, most recently in Baltimore, the message that Wisconsin is horrible for people of color can now be heard much more widely. There are also thousands of people who have experienced what it’s like to actively take part in a dynamic social movement, through the Wisconsin uprising and to a lesser extent, through Occupy. Here’s hoping that we can improve on our past efforts and raise hell onto those who would make our lives a nightmare.

Juan Conatz is a warehouse worker and member of the Industrial Workers of the World in Minneapolis. During 2011, he spent 4 months in Madison as a participant in the protests. He also is on the editorial collective of both Recomposition and libcom.org.

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Juan Conatz

Juan Conatz is a warehouse worker and member of the Industrial Workers of the World in Minneapolis. During 2011, he spent 4 months in Madison as a participant in the protests. He also is on the editorial collective of both Recomposition and libcom.org.

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