Looking back on the heady Capitol Occupation and its aftermath.
This article is part of an ongoing collaboration between Tone Madison and Emily Mills’ newsletter, Grist From the Mills.
Last night, Gov. Tony Evers unveiled his full 2021-23 biennial budget proposal. There’s a lot of good in it: needed investments in education, the environment, health care, and a long-overdue overhaul of our criminal justice system. I don’t have the mental bandwidth at the moment to get into how so much of this will be stripped out by the Republican-majority Legislature (but that’s definitely part of an upcoming essay). What I do want to talk about is Evers’ inclusion of an at least partial rollback of Act 10, which itself turns 10 this year.
Strange to think that a decade ago this week I suddenly found myself practically living at the Wisconsin State Capitol. Even stranger to think that, despite such overwhelming opposition to then-Gov. Scott Walker’s brazen attack on working people and total disdain for democratic processes on the part of GOP leadership, when the smoke cleared, Act 10 still became law. It was a warning bell of things to come on both the state and national levels, to be sure.
There’s a lot of damage to be undone and I don’t see the even more extreme version of the GOP still clinging to unrepresentative power deigning to support Evers’ relatively modest proposal. I would love to be wrong! I won’t be!
They’ve already hired expensive, taxpayer-funded lawyers to defend their gerrymandered district maps (anything to hold onto power as their actual voter base fast dwindles).
I’m fully aware that events were unfolding long before February 2011 that helped set the stage for our current era of one-party rule. For me, however, the Act 10 protests were an absolutely formative experience. I was in my late 20s. I had been living in Madison for 11 years, though only 6 if you take out college, when I was only partially engaged in the wider community. I had been freelancing full-time for a few years, cobbling together something like a living through a stressful but educational array of writing gigs and part-time barista work (I can still make a pretty mean cappuccino, even though—fun fact—I hate coffee).
My passion project at the time was working as co-editor of Dane101.com. The now defunct, grassroots, collaborative media and culture website is where I met my longtime friend and collaborator, Jesse Russell (also co-producer for all ten years of the Fire Ball Masquerade, one of Dane101’s main fundraising events). We’d been trying to provide regular coverage of the hyper-local news that we felt was lacking as traditional news outlets increasingly lost capacity. We were fairly early adopters of social media to gather and share that news, too, all of which made us uniquely position to be there from day 1 of what would become a series of historic protests at the capitol.
I got word that the TAA was holding a “We ❤️ UW” demonstration and letter drop on Feb. 14, just days after Walker dropped his “bomb” (first reported, hilariously, by arch-conservative gadfly Dave Blaska) about busting public sector unions in his upcoming budget. I made my way downtown to the snowy Memorial Union steps, camera and flip phone in hand, intending to report on what I assumed would be like any of the other protests I’d attended in Madison up to that time. I figured it would be the usual cast of stalwart progressive Boomers and a handful of politically active UW students. It became quickly apparent that something much larger was unfolding.
Jesse and I were at the Capitol when Scott Fitzgerald, then the Senate majority leader, called an abrupt session of the Joint Finance Committee to ram through Act 10 (without, it must be said, the full 24-hour public notice required by law). It put us front-row center to report what was happening, and people across the country started to notice our little operation. I can’t lie, it was exciting and heady.
I went back to report from the Capitol, day after day, almost continuously for the next month and then regularly for several months after that. I took quite a lot of photos that month/year—one of which became my first viral tweet: a shot of the rotunda, filled to the brim with people protesting, the fullest I’d ever seen it. Jesse Jackson showed up. So did Michelle Shocked (who went on to harass me for uploading a YouTube video with her performing with local disco band VO5), and various state and national political and labor leaders.
I can still distinctly conjure the smell of the Capitol during the long occupation that followed—pizza, snow, body odor, and that particular dust-and-musk smell of old stone buildings. I remember the tangible buzz I felt when the firefighter’s union showed up with signs and bagpipers to parade through the rotunda in a show of solidarity (even though, calculatingly, Walker had left theirs and the police union off the chopping block). I watched as people figured out that the windows in the bathrooms had been screwed shut, then found ways to wrench them open so that people could continue to get in and out of the building. This in response to GOP leaders ordering the doors to our normally publicly-accessible building locked in order to (illegally) prevent further public testimony, which was overwhelmingly opposed to the bill.
I never stayed overnight in the building, like so many others did, because I was exhausted after each long day of (largely unpaid) reporting: Running back and forth from the Capitol to nearby coffee shops to refuel and find power and wifi (because the GOP also shut down the Capitol’s public network); running up and down several flights of stairs in the capitol to follow the action that seemed to unfold every hour; scrounging up meals; using a flip phone to send blind messages to Twitter in order to correct false and/or incorrect reports from national media, like that the protests were violent (they were not) or that palm trees grew in Wisconsin (um). I had to have my very patient partner at home texting me with any questions or comments I got in return because I didn’t have a smart phone (RIP 40404)—something he helped me rectify after about a month.
For me, it was an often sobering crash course in the particulars and peculiarities of Wisconsin government, not to mention the confusing layout of the building itself. I also met dozens of people from across the state and from all walks of life who were there to show support, many of whom I remain friends and/or friendly with to this day. The experience landed me on a panel at Netroots Nation later that year, where all of us Dane101ers discovered we were temporary celebrities just for being from Wisconsin. We were encouraged to become a non-profit and seek financial backing from the big progressive and Democratic orgs – well before the non-profit media model was, well, a model at all. And we did! Somehow, later that year, we went through the daunting process of converting our lil’ LLC-that-could into a bona fide 501c4 and schlepped out to Washington, DC with a fully fleshed out pitch for funding and far too much optimism.
We didn’t get any funding.
Like so much of the media and political landscape these days, our time in the national spotlight was over seemingly as quickly as it began. Walker had won the (unfair) fight. The massive protests died back to the daily chorus of the dozen or so Solidarity Singers. The news cycle moved on. Our hard-working but fledgling effort at grassroots, local media eventually burned out, too. It was just too much to sustain without being able to properly compensate ourselves or anyone who worked for us.
As disappointing and eye-opening as so much of the experience was for me (and many others), I also believe that a lot of good came of that year. Certainly, it catapulted my own political and social consciousness further to the left. It pushed me to become more engaged than ever and determined to stay that way in hopes that I might help push, in even a small way, my beloved state into finally living up to its progressive ideals. I’m proud of what we accomplished at Dane101. And I’ve also seen how the events of 2011 pushed a lot of wonderful, committed, smart people into public service and/or activism. I think we’re seeing some of the dividends of that awakening and organizing paying off now, as more diverse candidates run for and win office across the state, as we finally voted Walker out of office specifically in favor of the the public schools guy.
I continue to be frustrated by the ways in which the GOP, its allies and unwitting accomplices have hamstrung needed efforts to bring positive and meaningful reforms and improvements to just about every aspect of Wisconsin life. We’ve gone from the national test kitchen for progressivism to the bellwether of creeping fascism. We have a long road ahead, indeed.
Still, I take heart in what I saw and learned from the 2011 uprising and all the work that’s been done since. It’s getting done by an increasingly democratic and diverse spectrum of folks that spans demographics, in particular younger generations that are even less willing to put up with any shit. I’m here for it.
As Fred Hampton said, “Power anywhere where there’s people.” Keep fighting.