Filed under: Milwaukee area | Tags: anarchism, anti-austerity, books, class war, communism, crisis, intervention, interview, madison, milwaukee, posters, wisconsin
An interview with an individual involved in Burnt Bookmobile, a blog out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin run by some people influenced by various anti-authoritarian tendencies, including insurrectionary anarchism, left communism, and nihilism, among others.
During the spring of 2011, when the ‘Wisconsin Uprising’ or ‘#wiunion movement’ was in full swing, they put out a number of flyers, leaflets and posters that pushed the occupation or general strike concept forward and contributed to the more militant atmosphere that Madison saw traces of. When I was still in Madison, I tried to stay in touch with at least one person who was involved in running the site, sending updates and perspectives back and forth. Recently I had the chance to make a trip to Milwaukee where they agreed to do an interview.
When was Burnt Bookmobile started and what were the initial thoughts behind it? Have they changed since then?
The Burnt Bookmobile was first started as a distro around 2004 and at the time spent the majority of its activity intervening in the hardcore, punk and counter cultural scenes revolving around the subjects of veganism, a kind of inarticulate post-left anarchism and anti-civ trends of thought. This was an orientation that was largely moral in character, but it would more and more come to reject this for a focus on the question of what constitutes living within capitalism and strategic concerns situated within the struggles which we had found ourselves, such as the end of the anti-globalization era, the anti-war era, consumer politics, alternative identity, and the more general anti-capitalist movement.
Since then the Burnt Bookmobile has been present at wine and cheese festivals, occupied campus buildings, neighborhood block parties, film screenings, lectures, poetry readings, shows, etc. Its mode of intervention has always been primarily through the text, offering things as much as we could for free in the form of zines and posters, and books sold for as much as it costs to restock.
Certainly the content of these texts has gone through different phases reflective of different questions we were thinking through, ideas and practices which resonated with us and which we experimented with. These phases articulated themselves in insurrectionary anarchism, left communism, illegalism, egoism, nihilism, Situationist theory, critical theory and the partisan cannon of philosophy, fiction and poetry. Though obviously contradictory, these traditions form a nexus of ideas that have been useful to us in an effort to think and act out a general antagonism against capitalism.
Do you think the blog has helped introduce local people to communist positions or benefited the projects the local milieu has taken on?
Without a doubt the character of the local projects and the critical tools they employ are indebted to years and years of establishing a more critical and articulate discourse. Whether people read the texts or see the posters, it has produced a certain standard of critical thought within the anti-authoritarian, anarchist, and communist milieu, that must in some way be responded to.
I know this is a big question, but for those unfamiliar, what is Milwaukee like and how does the local situation influence or determine your projects and activity?
I’m no expert on the history of Milwaukee, so these are my reflections. Milwaukee is a Rust Belt city much like other Rust Belt cities and like these cities is a site of former industrial centers of production, the labor of which has been either made redundant through automation, outsourced for cheaper often less skilled labor, or been the subject of more general capitalist restructuring. Milwaukee is also one of the most segregated of the major cities in the US. These are the major dynamics at play within the city. Development in spacial terms certainly happens in Milwaukee, but it happens at a pace much slower than many other cities where value circulation attains a much more ruthless speed. It has a large surplus population pushed into crime and then into the apparatus of law (jail, prison, courts, criminal history, criminalization) that appears extremely racialized.
The Bookmobile responds mostly from the point of the shared positions as points of departure, coming from largely white, heterosexual, middle class, male, student, service industry subjectivities. The project bases its activity within the processes of undoing and active confrontation with these positions in material and symbolic terms. We most easily relate to others who feel ill at ease within these subject positions.
Certainly the question of how to approach those who share a similar disposition of hatred for their conditions and who share similar gestures to respond to them is very pressing. One must assess the risk of vulnerability in exposing one’s antagonistic intentions and activities to a general population to find the active minorities that these practices may resonate with. We agree with others who have said that a shared language is built through shared struggle, as counter to the forced relations which already constitute the language of capital. Certain moments with enough force behind them allow for the space of extreme exposure necessary to breakdown barriers of subjectivity allowing for such a language to develop.
We would love to communicate with those who resort to flash mobs out of boredom, who resort to collective crime as mode of resistance to their conditions. Perhaps we’ll meet someday in the streets warmed by a burning bank building, but until then a great many things prevent such a convergence.
Madison was (and is) sort of a bubble. I kind of had an idea of what was going on in Milwaukee last spring but could you describe what was going on?
Much of what I was involved in was centered on the UW-Milwaukee campus, the prospect of shutting it down to spread the occupations and aid in or initiate a wildcat general strike. The possibility of such a strike seemed more possible than any other time in my life because of all the seemingly unexpected and unprecedented (at least for my time in Milwaukee) activity that was already happening.
The first student initiated rallies were 20 times bigger than anything else I had seen on campus. Many students stopped going to classes, TAs were doing spontaneous sick outs, and everyone was caught in a flurry of going back and forth between the occupation in Madison and Milwaukee. Some teachers, most TAs, and school staff all had the talk of striking or some kind of workplace activity on their lips. The question being posed and discussed by many made the possibility of such a strike and what would be after and beyond a strike all the more tangible. The strategic and immediate importance of what we were doing seemed to carry so much more weight during this moment. It appeared to matter what a couple of extremists were suggesting.
Many people in Milwaukee had already initiated the conversation about campus occupations and had been discussing it since being inspired by the events in California in 2009. Because of this, when the time came to possibly employ occupations here it was mostly a question of strategy and not whether the idea would be accepted by the minority of students and non-students who would initiate it. Student leaders made every attempt to not let the situation get out of their control, but it started out of their control, would have never become what it was if it was in their control, so they found themselves further obsolete. Then, reacting to their obsolescence with further control they were made blatantly absurd by open collective criticism. Out of this occupation would come large discussions on topics ranging from the role of the police to how to support and further strikes, dance parties, many nights spent with little sleep on hard floors, calls for and the planning of other demonstrations, a general sharing of resources and maybe most importantly the collective experience of taking and sharing space. The rest of the occupation was fairly complicated throughout the sixty some days of its stay, and it would take up a lot of room to discuss it, so I won’t. What was important was that it was attempted as an effort to spread the occupations and define space on its own terms different from the pacifying “Madison model.”
Certainly I can’t claim to know much more of what was happening in Milwaukee than what I was in some way connected to or had my ear out for. Other than the university occupation, there was some activity surrounding the end of Good Time within the legislation1, which included an unruly prison demo at which fireworks were shot at the jail in downtown Milwaukee, people chanted anti-prison slogans and made noise for those inside, then minor property damage was done to the building. Afterwards a big swath of wheatpasting covered mostly the east side of the city with a communique of the action. There was a general assembly, in the Riverwest neighborhood where I live, to address the question of how to support strike and workplace activity. There were multiple larger scale lock gluings of the university and other places connected to important dates, as well as other sporadic acts of vandalism and sabotage. Posters and slogans where everywhere. Strangers talked to strangers about what was happening throughout the state. People involved were constantly in communication, meeting, assembling, etc.
At the time, some of the propaganda you all were putting out seemed to me to be 10 steps ahead of the movement. However, since then, I’ve changed my mind about this and think one can “meet people where they are at” and introduce what seem like extremely militant ideas. What are your thoughts on accomplishing this?
Compared to what we felt was necessary and what we desired, we were quite restrained in our interventions into he situation in Madison in particular and there was therefore an obvious tension in placing ourselves within discourses and events that were frankly, shameful. The terms with which to engage in struggle were so vapid that all that had never been problematized within the old workers movement (that of workers identity, progressivism, programatism, etc) was still acting as a web of restraint defining the conditions of activity. We felt at the same time a need to act within these events in order to push them to define divisions and limits within what was said and done, then to act against those limits and further the necessary divisions. We wanted to present and proliferate a collective capacity to do this, however minimal our own capacity for proliferation was.
It has been important for us to realize that there was no movement in particular. This idea which acts to enforce and impose the most empty, vague identity, “We Are Wisconsin“, upon the mass of angry people who were affected by the event in Wisconsin acted as a means to curtail and defer any modes of resistance beyond the most pacified symbolic acts, calls for legitimacy, family values, and other normative frameworks that are generally always more operative for capitalism than they are for any resistance. A lot more could be said about the function of such an imposition. More than just within the specific event of the Madison occupation we felt a need to provoke and communicate in a way that opened up means of acting rather than defining and containing them; not being any model in particular, but instead spreading that disposition to act and take collectively. This was generally the intention with the posters and activity we were involved in. More so, what we wrote and said was lost in the suppression of event or erased by the victors of the struggle which appear now to be democratic politics. At the time we attempted to offer critical tools to understand and surpass barriers to self-organization outside of the limits of syndcalism, “politics”, democracy, work, etc etc. Amidst the now apparent failure of our interventions, they now appear to us to be far too mild and timid.
From far off, it seems Occupy has either not taken off much in Wisconsin or has been absorbed into the recall effort of the Governor. Is this accurate? What has Occupy been like in comparison to what you know of other places?
I’m unfamiliar with what is happening or has happened in Madison regarding the occupy movement, but this has been accurate for Milwaukee, and I assume much more so for Madison. The specter of the recall campaign continues to haunt Wisconsin with counter revolution at a time when much of the rest of the country is experiencing the awkward becomings of open contestation of space and a more generalized resistance to the crisis.
What future ‘ruptures’ or openings do you see in Milwaukee or the state as a whole?
Frankly I don’t see anything interesting coming out of Milwaukee or the state as a whole that resembles anything like what happened in Madison. It will be a surprise when it does, just as the event last spring. It wouldn’t have been an event if we would have expected its coming. But the series of crises that are coming won’t be resolved easily, won’t be swallowed we hope without a fight, so for now we’re forced to keep our ear to the ground and be ready for the next round.
Thanks for making time for an interview.
Definitely. Thanks for asking.
Filed under: Milwaukee area, war-machine | Tags: austerity, collective bargaining, madison, milwaukee, occupy, occupy everything, occupy MKE, occupy wallstreet, politicians, public space, take, take things, the rich
Filed under: Milwaukee area, war-machine | Tags: anarchists, anti-capitalism, austerity, conference, crimethinc, intervention, look to wisconsin, madison, milwaukee, occupation, students, wisconsin
Some notes and reflections made by Crimethinc on the Look To Wisconsin Conference, which took place in Milwaukee last month (these are conclusions made by individuals from Crimethinc, and not some consensus made by the conference attendees):
On May 20-21, anarchists and fellow travelers gathered in Milwaukee for a small conference about the ongoing crisis of capitalism. In the final discussion, people from around the US compared notes on recent anti-austerity protests, focusing chiefly on the student movement in California and the recent protests in Wisconsin. We’ve summarized some of the conclusions here in hopes they can be useful in the next phase of anarchist organizing.
So far, anarchists have not been very successful in contributing to anti-austerity protests in the US. Starting in December 2008, anarchist participation in school occupations was instrumental in kick-starting a student movement, but by March 4, 2010 this movement was dominated by liberal and authoritarian organizing; it subsequently ran out of steam. More recently, anarchists participated in the occupation of the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin in protest against anti-union legislation and occupied a university building in Milwaukee, without substantial impact on the course of events.
It’s troubling that we’ve had such limited success in a context that should be conducive to our efforts. Eleven years ago, during the high point of the anti-globalization movement, anarchist participants were essentially the militant edge of an activist movement addressing issues that were distant from many people’s day-to-day needs. Today, the livelihoods of millions like us are on the line; people should be much more likely to join in revolt now than they were a decade ago. If this isn’t happening, it indicates that we’re failing to organize effectively, or that the models we’re offering aren’t useful.
European anarchists have had more success, but they benefit from a richer and more continuous lineage of social movements. In the US, the birthplace of the generation gap, our task is not just to intensify ongoing struggles, but to generate new fighting formations—a much greater challenge. We seem to go through one generation of anarchists after another without any gains. Although our predecessors rightly caution us against measuring our efforts in purely quantitative terms, we can’t hope to overthrow capitalism by our own isolated heroics, turning the world upside down one newspaper box at a time.
A small fire demands constant tending.
A bonfire can be let alone.
A conflagration spreads.
We have to figure out how to connect with everyone else who is suffering and angry. To that end, here are some observations and proposals derived from the conversations in Milwaukee.
—The anti-austerity protests in Wisconsin are not the last of their kind; on the contrary, they herald the arrival of a new era. It is paramount that we learn from our early failures to develop a more effective strategy for engaging in these conflicts.
—In Madison, anarchists largely focused on establishing infrastructure for the occupation. This is not the first time anarchists have contributed their organizational skills to an essentially liberal protest. At the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, about 100,000 people participated in demonstrations; this included thousands of anarchists, many of whom limited themselves to logistical roles. Afterwards, this was recognized as a tremendous missed opportunity—hence the efforts to take the lead in planning actions at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Our task is not just to facilitate protests of whatever kind, but to ensure that they threaten the flows of capital—that they create a situation in which people abandon their roles in maintaining the current order. To this end, we have to seize the initiative to organize actions as well as infrastructure. Clashes with the state will be more controversial than free meals and childcare, but this controversy has to play out if we are ever to get anywhere.
—A wide range of sources concur that the occupation of the capitol building in Madison was undermined one tiny compromise at a time. First the police politely asked people not to be in one room—and they were being so nice about everything that no one could say no. Then they gently asked people to vacate another, and so on until the dumbfounded former occupiers found themselves out on the pavement. This underlines an important lesson: the first compromise might as well be the last one. Whenever we concede anything, we set a precedent that will be repeated again and again; we also embolden our enemies. We have to be absolutely uncompromising from the beginning to the end.
In popular struggles, anarchists can be the force that refuses to yield. We can also pass on our hard-won analyses to less experienced protesters—for example, emphasizing that however friendly individual police officers might be, they cannot be trusted as long as they are police. To do these things, however, we have to be in the thick of things, not looking on from the margins.
—A common complaint from the more combative participants in the Madison occupation was that leftist organizations had already gained the initiative and determined the character of the protest. Anarchists were afraid to act, taking the leftist control of the narrative as an indication that there was nothing they could do. Indeed, after the end of the occupation, liberal organizers channeled the remaining momentum into a recall campaign confined to the electoral sphere.
In fact, in circumstances like the capitol occupation, there’s nothing to lose. The solutions promoted by authoritarian leftists and liberals don’t point beyond the horizon of capitalism; even when they aren’t utterly naïve, they’re no better than the right-wing agenda, in that they serve to distract and neutralize those who desire real change. Where the field is split between left-wing and right-wing, we may as well disrupt this dichotomy by acting outside of it. Even if we fail, at least we show that something else is possible.
—One Wisconsin anarchist proposed that we should distinguish between two strategic terrains for action. Some events, such as the occupation of the capitol building in Madison, function as tremendous spectacles; the most we can hope to accomplish is to interrupt them, forcing a more challenging narrative into the public discourse. Other spaces that are under less pressure, like the occupation of the theater building in Milwaukee, offer an opportunity to develop new social connections and critiques.
In the latter, we can create new channels for discussion and decision-making that will serve us well in subsequent confrontations. We can measure our effectiveness by how well we accomplish this, not just by the material damage inflicted on targets or the numbers of people who show up to demonstrations.
In upheavals such as the one in Wisconsin, we can unmask authoritarian domination of resistance movements and debunk the idea that the democratic system can solve the problems created by capitalism.
—At no point during the buildup to the protests of March 4, 2010 or the occupations in Wisconsin did anarchists establish an autonomous, public organizing body to play a role such as the RNC Welcoming Committee played at the 2008 RNC or the PGRP played at the 2009 G20. This was a strategic error that enabled liberal and authoritarian organizers to monopolize the public discourse around the protests and determine their character and conditions in advance. In the Bay Area, the word on the street was that anarchists had established some sort of back-room deal with public organizers that the latter reneged on. This betrayal should come as no surprise: without the leverage afforded by public organizing of our own, we can always expect to be hoodwinked and betrayed by those who don’t share our opposition to hierarchical power.
We need public, participatory calls and organizing structures, both to offer points of entry to everyone who might want to fight alongside us and to make it impossible for authoritarians to stifle revolt by arranging the battlefield to be unfavorable for it. Public organizing can complement other less public approaches; often, it’s necessary to render them possible in the first place. Compare the 2008 RNC and 2009 G20 to March 4, 2010.
—As capitalism renders more and more people precarious or redundant, it will be harder and harder to fight from recognized positions of legitimacy within the system such as “workers” or “students.” Last year’s students fighting tuition hikes are this year’s dropouts; last year’s workers fighting job cuts are this year’s unemployed. We have to legitimize fighting from outside, establishing a new narrative of struggle. Who is more entitled to occupy a school than those who cannot afford to attend it? Who is more entitled to occupy a workplace than those who have already lost their jobs?
If we can accomplish this, we will neutralize the allegations of being “outside agitators” that are always raised against those who revolt. Better, we will transform every austerity conflict into an opportunity to connect with everyone else that has been thrown away by capitalism. Our goal should not be to protect the privileges of those who retain their jobs and enrollment, but to channel outrage about everything that capitalism has taken from all of us.
—Anti-austerity protests may offer a new opportunity to resume the practice of convergence so important in the anti-globalization era. Anarchists could respond to upheavals like the one in Wisconsin by converging on these “hotspots” to force things to a head. But this would require local communities to be ready to host visitors—to have the necessary resources prepared in advance. These resources include food and housing, but also a relationship with the general public and leverage on the authorities, such as the Pittsburgh Organizing Group built up in the years leading up to the successful demonstrations against the 2009 G20.
—Between peaks of protest, we can attempt to connect with social circles that could be politicized. Punks entered the anti-globalization movement with a preexisting anticapitalist critique and antagonism towards authority, thanks to two decades of countercultural development. This enabled them to escalate the situation immediately, shifting the discourse from reform to revolution. The more people enter anti-austerity struggles thus equipped, the less time will be wasted relearning old lessons.
—In addition to exacerbating the contradictions inherent in the financial crisis, we should undertake to make life in upheavals more pleasurable and robust than workaday life. Those who participate in wildcat strikes and occupations should experience these as more exciting and fulfilling than their usual routines, to such an extent that it becomes possible to imagine life after capitalism. As many anarchists live in a permanent state of exclusion, making the best of it despite everything, we should be especially well-equipped to assist here.
In this regard, there is a real need for infrastructures that can provide for the practical needs of those who wrest themselves out of the functioning of the economy. But these infrastructures should not be simply ad hoc protest logistics; they must demonstrate the feasibility of radically different systems of production and distribution.
There is probably some new way of engaging, some “new intelligence” appropriate to this era that we haven’t discovered yet; the formats we retain from the past may not serve us now. There is much experimenting to be done. Dear friends, may you succeed where others have failed.
Filed under: Milwaukee area, war-machine | Tags: austerity, crisis, interview, madison, milwaukee, normal, scott walker, wisconsin
Q: “How has the situation in Wisconsin changed, if at all, in the weeks since you initially conducted the interview?”
A: It’s certainly devious in how imperceptible that change is and was, both for when there was a “change” and after. You had to seek it out or you have to have been effected, forced to pay attention. Most areas of life were on the surface in no way effected by “the events in Madison.” They were too easy to ignore. And this imperceptibility demonstrates the immense power of the apparatus that keeps everything the same and also the weakness of a struggle that either must change everything or will return to normal.
I’m tempted to compare the situation of seeming powerlessness, the general strike that was threatened and existed in many minds as a slumbering yet awakening beast of a bygone age, and which remains present in many minds specifically as a lack, to a phantom limb. We feel, and are witness to the presence of our absence of power.
What I can share are frustrations, and a kind of shock that corresponds with any subservient march back to work, and that forgets the most important fact of these events, which is that it was not the unions or politicians which made us something to be feared. It was the constitution as a force, however briefly and however foolish, that shocked many, especially those who participated, with fear. Where else did the constant calls for non-violence come from? A million tiny failures repulse us with the horror of our powerlessness, specifically after we glimpsed or dared think otherwise. Not only time will tell how well we will retain this dream, because within a world that has every interest in our forgetting, it would sooner have never happened. Either we will feel the shame of taking part in our own forgetting or we will have to fight and through conflict remember more and more what is at stake in the present.
So yes, a lot has changed, but if one weren’t part of it then it’s as if nothing has and never did. It’s a news story. It’s a protest to be ignored. Life goes on. Now instead of a general strike, or strikes, or sick outs, or walk outs, what remains overwhelmingly are recall campaigns, and talk of electoral politics, which channel and subdue these events into processes that manage them, contain them, count them, and include them in the calculus of the democratic party. One must wait for their turn to put a piece of paper in a box and then go back to work, go back home, go to the mall – all places which we’ve been produced to fit perfectly within. Our presence within them contests nothing, and where contestation is ignored politics hides – the beast slumbers.
Filed under: Milwaukee area, war-machine | Tags: austerity, capitalism, general strike, madison, milwaukee, strike, students, unions, unlimited, unlimited strike, wildcat, wisconsin, work, workers
General Strike – \’jen-rəl ‘strɪk\ (noun) A mass strike in all trades, sectors, and industries in all parts of a city, state, or country.
Unlimited Strike – \un-’li-mə-təd ‘strɪk\ (noun) An indefinite strike, which begins with no pre-established date for an ending, and will continue until the workers’ collectively decide on its conclusion.
Wildcat Strike – \’wɪ(-ə)l(d)-kat ‘strɪk\ (noun) An unauthorized strike that has not been called or sanctioned by the bureaucracy of a labor union.
In the face of orderly protests and permitted rallies, Scott Walker’s coveted bill has unsurprisingly managed to slink its way through the legislature. With only sanctioned protests on the horizon, appeals for calm are the only audible words to be heard, while a stifling silence has become the official response to any prospect for continued resistance. The union bureaucrats, who yesterday thundered demands from the podiums, now quietly ask us to return to work in the very same voice they use to whisper in a politician’s ears. Despite their various machinations to maintain passive consent and defeat, a specter continues to hover over the enraged state of Wisconsin: unlimited wild general strike.
In a strange mix of anger and excitement, we’ve watched each other change. As our confidence grew, we began to recognize a hidden potential we never thought we had. If anything was achieved in the past few weeks it was this – and be sure nothing this powerful could ever be conceived in a boardroom with an executive mandate. The storming of the Capitol building, the occupation of the theater, and the countless acts of sabotage were the undeniable manifestation of popular rage. Until everything around us reflects our newfound temperament, we’ll be forced to proceed with an ever-increasing fury. Each step forward makes turning back a more cowardly act of betrayal. Every sign leads in one direction: unlimited wild general strike.
Students, abandon your desks.
Employees, desert your cubicles.
The grand finale will be staged on a crowded boulevard.
Anyone who tells you “no” has joined the other side.
Unlimited Wild General Strike.
Filed under: Milwaukee area, war-machine | Tags: anti-austerity, austerity, capitalism, democracy, general assembly, kill the bill, madison, milwaukee, non-student, occupation, students, theatre, UWM, warts, working class
The occupation is a feast at which we may satisfy our hunger for beautiful and intense moments.
- Graffiti from the occupied UWM theatre building
Then suddenly an outburst of activity: the occupation of the State Capitol building in Madison; anti-austerity demonstrations involving tens of thousands of people; massive wildcat sick-ins, student walk-outs and murmurs of a general strike.
Of course this attempt to get back on our feet will include its fair share of missteps and stumbling. All the more so because for many of us, nothing quite like this has yet touched our lives. Even for those of us who desperately track such moments of conflict through the pages of books, across oceans and continents, this is a new and strange place we find ourselves in.
On March 2nd at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee a student walkout took place followed by a demonstration involving some 2,000 students, teaching assistants, professors, workers and unemployed. The demonstration took to the streets surrounding the university. Chants and signs were mostly dominated by anti-legislation, anti-governor as well as pro-union, pro-democracy rhetoric. “This is what democracy looks like:” an unintentionally ironic slogan given that the occupation of the State Capitol building, which partially inspires the university uproar, is actually an attempt to disrupt the functioning of democracy and majority rule.
The sadly predictable rally which followed the demonstration was sufficiently long and boring to kill most of the momentum generated by the walk-out and disperse all but a couple hundred of those who had participated in the demonstration. This, by no means recent, trend is, if not a tool of manipulation used by organizers and leaders to maintain control over the situation, then at least an undesirable hold-over from bygone eras.
The point here is not to value one form of symbolic protest over another (marching in the streets versus standing in a plaza), but to realize when an activity is detrimental to the continuation and expansion of the struggle and to replace it with a different form. Marching through campus buildings in an attempt to further disrupt classes and the functioning of the university, holding an open “speak-out” at which any individual from the crowd could voice their opinions, or directly moving to occupy a building with a several thousand strong crowd would all be better than the impotent spectacle of speakers and a passive crowd.
Eventually the remaining demonstrators moved back into the student union, this time to resounding chants of, “They say class cuts, we say class war”, “An eye for an eye, Walker must die”, and “Kill the rich” (a slight alteration of the mainstream slogan “kill the bill”). After a brief discussion on the best building to occupy, the group moved into the lobby of the theater department and set up camp.
Almost immediately the “occupation” was overwhelmed by the formalism of meetings and a consuming concern with minutia. Instead of immediately discussing how to make the occupation more potent and massive, energy and excitement was drained into debates about demands that ultimately had no basis in a real counter-power to the administration and rules for how to exist collectively within the space.
While compromises were eventually reached on such issues as whether or not to barricade the doors, graffiti the walls, and drink indoors, the absurdities of “respecting the building” reached surreal heights. At one point an argument was started about what kind of tape to use when putting posters on the wall (the supposedly acceptable alternative to writing on them directly).
At another point, after agreeing to a demand for “immunity for all involved in the occupations” someone from within the occupation called the police on a fellow occupier. A terribly divisive move that if repeated can only serve to weaken and destroy the potential for further collective struggle. This act of “snitching” led to heated debates, a periodic police walk-through, and an eventual agreement to cease relying on the police as a means of solving internal disputes.
All of these details, while illustrating the confused and timid nature of what in actuality was a prolonged, indoor protest, should not be used to completely write off the events that transpired. Criticism in this context is meant as a means of learning and growing so that a future attempt to engage with social struggle may avoid the mistakes of our past. The very fact of our lack of a collective living memory on exactly how to fight back is both the explanation for these errors and the motivation for a continued presence within the struggle against austerity.
The adoption of a general assembly model for making decisions, while being a safeguard against the manipulations of small groups, was also a forum for the discussion of issues such as the nature and purpose of occupations and social struggle, the possibility of a generalized strike, and the role of police in society at large. While these discussions did not immediately translate into practical activity, their effect on the future of this struggle and others which may follow it cannot be foreseen from this vantage point.
Generally speaking, the transition from thought and conversation into action, or rather the lack of this necessary step, is a major hindrance to the development of the occupation in a more consciously conflictual direction. The lack of confidence in ourselves, in our ability to actually transform our environment and our daily lives, was exemplified by both the insistence on following the rules and thus preserving the position of “student” as well as the ever-present conversation revolving around the need to inform more people about what was going on. Covering the campus and surrounding neighborhood with posters, flyering desks and tables, disrupting classes or even consistently engaging those passing through the space in conversation were all ideas that were thrown out, but were only acted on to a limited degree. This hesitancy to take our ideas, and thereby our selves, seriously is a limitation that can only be overcome through further experience in struggle. The dynamic of leadership and followers must be superseded by the development of self-organization and the capacity to act decisively.
Perhaps the biggest limit of this attempt at occupation is its nature as an isolated activity for most of those involved. Because it does not currently coincide with a stoppage of either work or reproductive education, because there is yet no strike, the occupation takes on the form of an isolated protest. Without the lifting of the burdens of classes, homework, and part time wage labor many of the participants were quickly exhausted and didn’t have the time or energy to be more deeply invested in the project of qualitatively developing the situation.
Without any sign of disagreement or even a discussion of its implications, the participants accepted the slogan of “Strike, Occupy, Takeover!” Yet the first step in that simplistic equation wasn’t taken seriously as something we could collectively enact. Similarly, the assembled approved a statement calling for a general strike, and this without much of a discussion about just how a general strike could come about.
Due to the nature of the laws regulating labor disputes in the US, a general strike cannot be declared from on high by the large labor federations. For a generalized strike to occur here it would necessarily involve some degree of self-organization whether through discussion and activity at the local union level, the forging of complicit relationships at non-unionized workplaces (which are by far the majority), sabotage at non-participating workplaces, or some other form perhaps completely outside and unrepresentable by the familiar apparatuses.
Yet within much of the assembled body of students, a general strike was not understood as something that everyone would have to create together, a festival of disruption, but rather as something that would just happen; a disheartening attitude that reduces the likelihood of a meaningful and widespread stoppage. Perhaps other forums will be created in which this necessary conversation can be taken up in greater depth.
To sum up we can say that although the occupation is rife with limitations and fails to overcome most, if not all, of them, it is a beginning and not an end. The attempt to expand the struggle against austerity beyond the boundaries of time (one day walkouts, weekly demonstrations), geography (the centrality of Madison), and social position (workers vs. students) is a step in the right direction. In order to actually derail the legislation which sparked all this uproar, the struggle will have to spread across even more boundaries (precarious and poor vs. securely employed, etc.) and develop both in form and content. It is precisely through this struggle to reverse a specific attack on the working class that we can open up further avenues for struggle and maybe even the possibility of a world without legislators or classes of any sort.
- some non-student participants
Filed under: Milwaukee area, update | Tags: angry, austerity, capitol, democrats, madison, scott walker, screaming, wisconsin
Senators in favor of stripping unions of their collective bargaining rights figured out a way to split this section from the rest of the budget and pass it without the presence of the runaway Democrats who were stalling the passing of this part of the bill. People in Madison are running angrily to the Capitol and storming the doors, starting shoving matches with the police holding them shut until the police gave up and retreated. Once inside thousands of people filled the building and chanted “general strike” and “occupy”, amongst other things. Strikes seem more imminent than ever. They appear as certain. Thus chanting and marching in circles appear as more than obvious to everyone as finally and obviously inadequate. News sources are describing firetrucks driving around Madison blaring their sirens as sense of a state of emergency prevails across the city. They are joined by an endless stream of cars in traffic honking their horns constantly.
While getting in to the Capitol building:
“Some doors were damaged, knobs and handles broken off,” Donovan said. “Some windows were either opened or broken. We can’t confirm whether any window glass was broken.”
Filed under: Milwaukee area, update | Tags: action, anti-austerity, general strike, madison, milwaukee, neighborhood, riverwest, solidarity, strikes, wisconsin
This particular neighborhood has a long and vibrant anti-authoritarian, working class, bohemian, etc history. It could be very interesting to see what comes of this.
“For SOLIDARITY in Wisconsin and ACTION in the Neighborhood
-How can we act in solidarity with others across the state opposing austerity measures?
-What can we do to support those participating in strikes? What will it look like for Riverwest to be on strike?
-How can we build relationships and projects of mutual and autonomy to meet our needs as a neighborhood?”
When: Thursday, March 10 6:30 to 9:30 (tomorrow)
Where: COA 909 E Garfield Room 40
Filed under: Milwaukee area, update, war-machine | Tags: 732, austerity, cheesecake, crisis, general strike, love letters, madison, milwaukee, occupation, occupy everything, pizza, scott walker, students, theatre, university, UWM, wisconsin
We’re writing from inside UWM’s Peck Theatre building which is currently being indefinitely and openly occupied by between 50 and 100 people. The occupation is happening after over a thousand students, TAs and faculty members walked-out of the University of Milwaukee. Those participating in the walk-out and subsequent march held banners reading “School’s out Forever” and “Strike, Occupy, Takeover” among other things. The stated intent of the occupation is to act in solidarity with those occupying the capital building in Madison, those striking and resisting austerity in the Midwest, and with the uprisings throughout the Middle East. People have announced a dance party later tonight. There is food and music and riot porn being projected on the walls. In general the atmosphere is festive and relaxed. A lot of people are socializing or re-decorating the space. Some adorable senior citizens brought us cheesecake as a token of their solidarity with the struggle. The general sentiment among the occupiers is to extend the occupation as long as possible. Word has reached us of an occupation on the UW campus in Beloit. (More info later)
We graciously request from comrades abroad:
-Pizza, Soda, Snacks (to be delivered to the UW-Milwaukee Theatre building)
-Incendiary propaganda relating to crisis, austerity and occupation
-Sweet Dance Mixes
-More occupations, strikes, walk-outs and sick-outs
-And anything else you have access to in abundance.
Scott Walker them all.
Packages can be addressed to:
732 e. Clarke Street
Plus a few people went wild and made this list of demands. Both “nothing” and “everything” are demanded.
Filed under: Milwaukee area | Tags: anti-austerity, austerity, class struggle, crisis, democracy, madison, milwaukee, modesto, modesto anarcho, occupation, police, protest, revolutionaries, scott walker, subjectivity, the left
This interview was conducted by someone from the journal Modesto Anarcho (MA).
What follows is an interview with a comrade from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on the recent events in the state’s Capital, Madison, over a few hours away. For more information on what is happening in Wisconsin, check out the Burnt Bookmobile blog. Class war, don’t cha know?
MA: What is the situation in Madison right now?
I’ve only been in Madison during one of the days since the occupation and demonstrations started. I’ve known people who have spent many days there, who have slept in the Capitol building, and who have been going back and forth between Milwaukee and Madison regularly. People are constantly talking about the situation, so I have an idea that is generally up to date, but there is often a bit of a delay. At other times I’m hearing about things as they happen through friends, because word travels much faster than the reporting often does.
I can describe what my experience was there briefly on that day. I went on the first Saturday, the day when the Tea Party of Wisconsin had also called for protests to counter the occupation and protests taking place. About a couple thousand Tea Party protesters showed up, but they were dwarfed and drowned out by the fifty to one hundred thousand people who wandered through the streets, marched, inadvertently blocking traffic and rerouting it across the city, and took up most of the floor space inside the Capitol building. They were mostly ignored and made irrelevant, huddled into a corner of the back steps and yard on one side of the Capitol. I had expected the presence of the Tea Party to provoke and heighten tensions between the two sides, but not much happened in response.
Inside the Capitol building people had been hanging posters and signs on everything. As would be expected, there were chants and crowds of people banging on things. When hearing “This is what democracy looks like” chanted I’m usually horribly ashamed to be present, driven almost to the point of nausea, but this atmosphere sent a shiver down my spine. Despite the form of expression this took, I had the feeling that its real content was hidden, but still exposed through the collective force of the activity of these people. It expressed a feeling of being together as thousands of people who couldn’t be fucked with, even if the parameters to express this were and are mostly pathetic at this point. It demonstrated that it is our activity that defines us. Otherwise, the contradiction of a movement that is both for and against democracy cannot be explained, as it physically prevents the democratic process. Democracy mitigates and disguises force relations by reducing them to a process and mere matters of opinion. It is the neutralization of force and thus of the conflict that is necessary for the elaboration of a politics, for one to take sides and act. We don’t care what as much what people chant, but as long as they increasingly define their position they will increasingly come into an internal contradiction with democratic logic.
What was going on in these spaces had been going on for days and had therefore assumed a kind of routine or culture. So after witnessing it there wasn’t much to do except to wander, meet and talk, eat food, hang out and occupy the space of the city along with the other thousands of people there.
As for what is going on currently in Madison, I’ve heard that Saturday the 26th has been one of the largest days of the demonstrations in terms of numbers. Though I haven’t heard much about the situation on that specific day. There have been rumors and talk of eviction since this all happened, but the police Chief of Madison made an official statement that probably came as an order to be distributed from the Governor, declaring that the Capitol building was to be “cleared” for cleaning, which meant forcefully evicted if need be. A day after this announcement the police union made a statement to the media and gathered crowds saying that they stand with those occupying the Capitol and protesters, not with Scott Walker or his proposed legislation, that they would not be part of any eviction of these people, and that they would in fact be joining them in sleeping on the floors of the Capitol. This is all very weird. It no doubt allows certain illusions to persist, but it won’t last long. It had seemed like the moment when lines would be more clearly drawn was fast approaching, making clear connections between this particular event, the inherent play of forces necessary to maintain everyday life and the function of the police, as a force of dispossession. We will not be surprised when the police are forced to act in order to attempt to maintain their role as the ones who make the threats.
On Saturday, word spread in various ways that the Capitol was going to be closed Sunday by 4pm and that everyone was going to have to leave. A couple hundred decided to leave to avoid risking arrest, but many hundreds more gathered and were determined to hold the space with the possibility of being arrested. Against the prospect of having to arrest hundreds of people in the Capitol, which would have been a bad move in the eyes of many thousands who had come to the Capitol in the preceding days, the police decided that they weren’t going to arrest anyone. They encouraged people to leave voluntarily and that they would assess the situation “day by day.” This all meant that as long as people stayed that the occupation would continue. It’s still continuing now.
MA: Can you talk about what were some of the first events to happen? The sick outs for instance?
I first heard about the events in Madison sitting in a computer lab, when none of this seemed like it would last more than a day and it lacked a real quality for many people here. Earlier in the day there had been a relatively minor protest organized by teachers assistants, teachers and others. Nothing was surprising or out of the ordinary. Not until later in the week, when a walk out was called and three thousand people responded, did the unreality of the situation start to appear as if it wasn’t going to so easily fade back to normal. After this there was always talk and rumors circulating. There was a giddiness that was held in common by people never expected to share anything. People, who before were just members of the crowd passing between work, class and their homes, suddenly had a vibrancy to them. Invisible dots that connected us became more visible.
I know a few who are teachers for MPS (Milwaukee Public Schools) and a number of graduate students who are TAs at the UW-Milwaukee campus. I don’t have a very exact knowledge of all of the districts and specific schools that were shut down by the sick outs. All Madison public schools were shut down for at least four days. Then followed Racine, Milwaukee and a number of others I’m not as familiar with. Thousands have participated in the sick outs. Some of TAs and teachers have not shown up to a single class since the sick out started to teach, despite threats from the administration. Many of the public school teachers have gone back to work, feeling some obligation to their students and because it seemed that there was less purpose in sustaining the sick outs. It appears as very likely that they will be employed strategically, correlative to certain days: like a general strike, the day when the contracts for many public employee unions expire, or other possible events.
MA: What is the extent of the student walk outs? The occupations?
Accompanying the sick outs there have also been widespread and random walkouts, by high school students. They have been incredibly self-directed. We’ve heard about them taking place anywhere from any of the rural Wisconsin towns, Schools surrounding Madison, and a number of urban Milwaukee schools. The numbers and magnitude of this activity was severely under-reported and communicated, so we have a hard time knowing what exactly went on. We had randomly crossed paths with one group of about two hundred to three hundred kids who had walked out of a school called Rufus King, who just happened to be meandering through the UW-Milwaukee campus during the walkout which was happening there. They joined the occupation of Bolton Hall on campus to show support temporarily, but seemed less interested in assemblies or discussion. They wanted to be angry and how they expressed this was to walk for miles around the city, chanting, yelling and being unruly. No activity we have seen thus far has contained as much energy as these kids.
The occupations outside of the Capitol have been so far pretty minor. Though many students have been a consistent presence in Madison and many have been staying overnight, sleeping on the floor of the Capitol building, and taking part in meetings and discussions happening there. There was the GOP office in Madison which was occupied by members of a disability rights group called ADAPT, who it was rumored to have been joined at least temporarily by steel workers. There is a lot of talk about occupation, and much is expected to coincide or respond to the release of the new budget that happens on the 1st of March, this upcoming student day of action on the 2nd of March, and when the bill passes.
MA: If a general strike does break out, what do you think will happen?
A lot of people barely know what a general strike means in the US. We don’t know what it means for an entire city to be shut down outside of a snow storm in Wisconsin. Perhaps there will be a snow storm and city workers will refuse to plow it. Most likely not. Union officials are quoted to have said in their endorsement of the general strike that emergency services would not be effected. Everything else run by public and potentially private industries as well will halt. One would assume that there would be marches and many people in the streets, with workplaces suddenly emptied of all their bodies, but it’s unclear what exactly these bodies will do suddenly freed and functioning less properly. With the strike being contingent upon when the bill passes and the bill passing being indefinitely delayed, it’s hard to tell or foresee an increase or lack of momentum that would change the effect of the strike.
Many people in general are planning. They don’t want to sit and wait for the bill to pass to determine their activity. Meanwhile the rank and file of unions are being educated as to the what and how of a general strike. It’s hard to fathom what this will look like without being heavily based on the image of how it has happened in the past. In this case, the past is innovative in responding to the nothing we’re so familiar with, but this only goes so far. The situation must be open to more creative and critical approaches in order to respond to the specific modes of production and reproduction of capitalism in Wisconsin currently, so as to fulfill the general strikes threat of a force that refuses to function, making everything stop. I don’t expect creative or critical approaches to this, but I have been surprised many times already in the past number of weeks.
MA: To what extent has the spirit of the Egyptian uprising been an impact on the demonstrators?
To the degree that some of the people involved have paid some attention to the events in Egypt and found them inspiring, this has contributed some amount of a feeling of a greater possibility here. It is doubtful that it is a very large influence. There are many people who identify within leftist and radical discourses, who would have followed what was and is going on in Egypt, but the majority are normal ass people from Wisconsin who most likely learn about events from standard television news and other “mainstream” media. As someone who doesn’t pay much attention to either I may be wrong.
MA: What are some of the limits of what is happening in Wisconsin? To what degree are the unions and the Democrats in control of the situation?
The situation is permeated with limits. It would seem that any potential rupture or large scale manifestation of people reacting to crisis, and thereby being the crisis, will manifest likely at first as a movement for the return to normal. It will be trapped mostly within the apparatuses and discourses which contain them, but also necessarily exceeding them through activity. There are obvious identifiable limits. There are the unions themselves, which in their structure play a role in preventing and containing the self-directed activity of those who work. There are dominant discourses for what constitutes politics or contestation, which prevent and contain how resisting or being in conflict can be thought and acted out. There is the whole of our present conditions which employ and condition the worker that must be struggled against. It is vague but true to say that the alienated being, the kind that exists as a person living in Wisconsin, must fight everything. But this does not mean that there is no specificity to the struggle here. At this point of just barely being started, the struggle is though mostly unacknowledged, in reality against everything that maintains the normal progressive development of Capital. The anti-austerity struggle here must determine barriers by conflicting with its conditions – by creating a language, culture and practice of a shared struggle.
It appears as quite clear that the unions and Democrats are acting as a response to a popular rage and collective force that necessitates they act in a way which maintains degrees of legitimacy. That these mere representations and structures lack the potency which corresponds to the actual abnormal activity of people here is not to say that they have no influence over the situation. They channel this rage into established politics, organization, identity, discourses which all inherently impotently respond to the situation specifically because they are and produce the dead end which we inhabit, this ever increasing lack of control over our lives.
MA: Have you heard or come across many people who are getting annoyed at the control the Left is placing on the events?
I’m surrounded by those who are always more than annoyed by the Left. I have not been in close proximity to the organization of the occupation in the Capitol, how marches are organized, etc. The presence of the Left is something that one is always alienated from. There is this feeling of being a member of mass to produce an image of power for ends other than yourself or your interests. There is a constant setting of the stage, the defining of what are acceptable terms, modes of conduct, the aestheticization of the event is often influenced most easily by those who can supply everyone with the same sign, with the same t-shirt, who take and make the image have a role of defining the event. But outside of this there is much self-directed and creative activity that contradicts these tendencies, and which will eventually come ever further into conflict with them.
We understand that activity itself has the ability to dissolve some of these subjective barriers and allows for people to be more than a member of a certain union for that certain union, a worker for work, a man for men, a student for school, etc. We can hope that this event to whatever degree creates a further crisis of subjectivity – that glimpses the abolishment of even more than the class, but the entire conditions and conditioning of the worker.
MA: Have revolutionaries been able to intervene or expand the revolt in any way?
It’s at too much of an early and experimental stage to assess the effectiveness of our activity. People with much wider aims and intentions are participating in these events and they’ve been thrown into a fever pace in order to catch up, but it is perhaps not the best idea to go into much detail about specifics. Posters are made and widely distributed. Texts are written that analyze the situation, attempting to clear away as many inhibitions as possible with critique. But most of all, in these moments it is not words but actions which have and which will change everything, and which corresponds to a way of being in the world that we could call communism or anarchy.
MA: Any last thoughts?
Look to Wisconsin and see yourselves. Make it spread. Prepare for and create crisis.