It’s been twelve years now since thousands of angry, scared, and broken hearted Wisconsinites spent weeks camping out on the cold marble floors of our state capitol in an attempt to protect workers rights. While we didn’t win an immediate victory, we did change what organizing looked like in Wisconsin and throughout the US.
I was the person that the Teaching Assistants Association (TAA) called on when they realized that what began as a small protest was going to become a massive event and had the possibility of becoming dangerous. They asked me to coordinate non-violence trainings. During the weeks in the capitol I worked with a great team to bring together dozens of skilled trainers to provide non-violence training to thousands of people and the people of Wisconsin stood strong and peaceful. Here are few thoughts that I shared back then. I think that they may still ring true in many of the struggles that we face today.
Thoughts on Being Part of the Wisconsin Movement
- Why are you here?
If you are here to defend the capitol building, you are in the wrong place. If you are here to prove your belief that police are fascists, you are in the wrong place. If you are here to prove your righteous acts, you are in the wrong place. If you are here to prove Republicans bad Democrats good, you are in the wrong place. Movements depend on a shared sense of deeper purpose. The Wisconsin movement is complex because it brings together such a wide variety of groups with many reasons for acting. In order for us to succeed in the long haul we must have a shared sense of purpose. I would suggest that the purpose we share is to create a Wisconsin in which all people have their basic human rights met and in which the people of the state drive the government, not the other way around.
- What is Civil Disobedience and Why Do It?
Civil disobedience is intentional illegal action used to address injustices in the system. It is not simply actions used to make police officers work harder or to add excitement or interest. It is well thought out and used to attain a goal that moves us toward that bigger purpose of meeting the human rights of everyone in our state and gaining control of the governmental process. Civil disobedience is a tactic to be used when the legal means don’t work. It should be well thought out in advance and taken on only with people you trust implicitly. Plans should be made in advance to deal with any repercussions of your actions. Remember that the police, the courts, and our government have been dealing with protestors a long, long time. They are prepared. You need to be too. Doing the action and getting arrested is the easy part. Dealing with the repercussions can be more time consuming and difficult. Ask yourself “how will my action help the movement?” before taking any action.
- What about me?
Me is an interesting character in the movement, whoever that me is. Every action that each of us takes, positive or negative, affects every other person in the movement community. Movements are in some sense temporary minority groups. This is not to suggest in any way that movements or members of movements face the same levels of discrimination or oppression. What we share is that majority culture is quick to define minority groups by the actions of single individuals “all Black men are x,” “all women, all youth, all insert your favorite minority here are y.” The same thing happens in movements. You are a representative of the movement whether you want to be or not. So, it’s up to you to measure each action you take, even the mundane ones like the words you use or when and where you opt to play the drum or whatever else, to ask yourself is this
going to move us toward our goal or away from it. Everyone in Wisconsin is going to be affected by the decisions of our courts, the legislature, and the governor. We need a movement that is made of all ages, all races, and all backgrounds. This
isn’t some liberal, progressive, or even radical group. This is Wisconsin. We all drink the same water. Every person that you see could be a part of the movement. Each one could bring something that we need. It’s up to each of us to build the bridges, to win people to our side, to encourage that understanding that we all drink the same water.
- But I just need to be me!
If you are in a spot in which you feel a need to do something that isn’t going to help the movement take a break, step away for a moment to come back stronger. This fight doesn’t end with this budget session or even with the recalls. We’ve got a lot of work to do and it’s going to take a long time. Governor Walker, the legislature, the cops, the media, and sometimes even your fellow protestors are going to do stuff that in your mind is just idiotic and really ticks you off. If you can deal with it in ways that are both logical, empathetic, and feel right in your heart go ahead and deal with it. If you feel worn down, angry to the point of not being able to control your actions, deeply depressed or otherwise just don’t feel yourself, step back. We are a large group. We’ll cover for each other, so everyone can have a break.
- Going for the long haul
Bad stuff is happening in Wisconsin’s government, stuff that will take years to fix. We’ll need to fix it and we can. It will take a lot of work, a lot of creative thinking, and a lot of coalition building and strengthening. Right now a lot of people are burned out, more than I’ve ever seen in my 20+ years as an activist and organizer.
Go ahead and mourn. There has been a death in the family, many deaths. We’ve lost much that we love and depend on in this last legislative session and it deserves to be mourned. Crying is welcomed here. So, is talking, writing, song, lifting weights, prayer, running, hitting the punching bag, any and all of the healthy means of processing loss and regaining strength.
Angrier than you can explain? That’s good too if you use it. Organizers often call it ‘cold anger.’ If you can keep your anger controlled and directed toward supporting our forward movement in healthy ways, it is one of the best tools we have. Remember we are all family here. Take care of your brothers and sisters and let them take care of you. Caring for each other makes us each stronger.
- What’s my role here?
In my work we say “everyone a learner, everyone a teacher, everyone a leader.” It works here too. Each and every one of us is more than a body at a rally. We need you. Ask questions. Share what you know. Support others in doing the same. Share your talents, whether it’s facilitating meetings or baking cookies. Not everyone gets the spotlight, but everyone keeps the movement alive and strong. Thank you everyone for what you’ve been doing to keep us moving!