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Mike Elk

Mike Elk is a labor journalist and staff writer for In These Times

February 24th, 2011 1:54 AM

How Obama's Organizing Election Efforts Influenced the Wisconsin Protests

Organizers have created a harmonious community inside the capitol that's part Paris commune and part Midwestern union hall -- and many got their start with Obama.

It's a constantly shifting, energetic crowd on the third floor of the capitol, with graduate students running around frantically in the situation room of the Teacher Assistant Association. They are discussing setting up phone banks to get more graduate students to come out for protests, plans to arrange for more food to come into the capitol, and coordinating volunteer protest marshals who in conjunction with Capitol Police, have been self-policing the several hundred protesters who have occupied the building.

For the last nine days, the Teaching Assistants Association of the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been at the core of organizing events in Wisconsin that have galvanized the world. They have created a harmonious, sustainable community inside of the capitol that is part Paris commune and part old-school Midwestern union hall. How sustainable that community is will be the key to achieving victory over the next several weeks or months.

 “This is our house, this is the People’s House and it’s important we keep it nice,” said Danny Selzberg, a member of the Teacher Assistant’s Association (TAA) at the University of Wisconsin. No event symbolized this more than a group of people I saw down on their hands and knees cleaning the marble floor of the state capitol. They were not janitors, but volunteers.

People from all over the world, including some Egyptian activists, have been ordering dozens of pizzas to be delivered to the capitol, and regular meals are delivered to thousands by the protest organizers. Bands are coming and playing for the crowd, lectures are given, and labor films are shown at midnight. Protesters are creating a fun home-like atmosphere as they plan to stay for how many weeks or months it takes to make Governor Walker withdraw his attempt to end collective bargaining for public employees.

Contrary to media portrayals of a bunch of young college hippies occupying the capitol, many blue-collar workers have been sleeping and staying there as well. Several families affected by government cuts have even taken to living in the capitol as the occupation continues.

“Steelworkers are sleeping in that capitol as well, I dare them to try to move us out of there,” said United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard.

Every night there are discussions of labor history and labor film showings. It’s almost as if the lack of labor-youth solidarity that derailed progress during the '60s has finally been found in Madison, Wisconsin.

The emerging youth-blue-collar solidarity is one of the keys to whether the protesters will be able to last “one day longer” than Gov. Scott Walker. A key to winning in Wisconsin will also be how long they can keep the capitol occupied and running harmoniously. Already, the governor of Wisconsin has realized this and was caught blocking access to a Web site organizers were using to coordinate occupation of the State Capitol.

The protests in Madison have become for all practical sense a strike. Workers and students aided by the 14 Democratic state senators who fled the state have created a strike like political stalemate. The governor can’t operate politically as long as protesters are occupying the capitol. It’s an issue that is simply too big for the governor to ignore.  

Like most strikes, the first few days are always a tremendous amount of fun and everyone shows up for rallies and pickets. However, after a few days, fewer people start showing up. People have lives and showing up to protest takes away from life, children, pets, etc. Over the last few days, the daily rallies at the Wisconsin State Capitol have begun to shrink. Protests that numbered between 30,000-50,000 people only a week ago have now narrowed to daily rallies of 5,000-10,000 outside the capitol. 

As energy decreases in Madison as the strike wears on the key to keeping the pressure on the governor is to keep the capitol occupied. The nonviolent occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol creates the type of tension Martin Luther King Jr. taught us no power could ignore. As King wrote in his famous "Letter from the Birmingham Jail," protest and occupation create the conditions necessary for social change. King wrote: "Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored."

What’s most amazing about the students and workers organizing the occupation of the capitol is that most of them are inspired not by King, but by a different African American leader (who at times has been prone to subtle union bashing): Barack Obama.

Throughout the capitol, it's easy to spot Obama-Biden T-shirts and laptops (including my own) with bumper stickers from the Obama campaign. Many of the youth activists involved in the Wisconsin organizing got their first taste of community organizing in Obama's Organizing for America campaign. Now students are using that confidence for community organizing gained during a presidential campaign for something entirely different – the first ever prolonged occupation of a state capitol.

“I think what the Obama campaign taught us is that we do indeed have power through community organizing to affect change,” says one protest organizer. “Now we are realizing that we don’t need to be organizing for politicians in order to create changes, but that we can create change ourselves through strikes.”

If the Wisconsin protest spreads, it may mark a turning point in our nation’s democracy. People frustrated with a president who failed to deliver change begin to realize they hold a greater power than any political leader – to see democracy as their own, and say what kind of economic laws they want to live by.

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