I arrived in Madison on Friday afternoon with three comrades from grad school, all of us set to spend two days standing, singing, marching, and chanting in solidarity with our worker neighbors. After finding a spot to park the car against the romantic backdrop of silver-rusted smoke stacks, we made our treck up to the capitol building, the air brisk but welcoming on our faces. We heard the chanting softly at first, but soon realized that people were being let inside the building again—the sonorous cacophony greeted us as soon as we were ushered through the rotating doors. Sometimes the cadence was off, and occasionally someone missed a word—(will we ever decide if the people united will never be “divided” or “defeated”?!)—but the message was strong and clear: We love the union. We are the union.
The room depicted what organized labor seems to reflect most in mainstream media representations of it: middle-aged to older white folks. (But, as we all know, the working class is a far more complex and complicated multitude). Here and there, pockets of diversity shone through the crowd, and I saw evidence that at least some people had an understanding of “intersectionality”—(an idea that is summed up nicely by Audre Lorde when she notes that “there is no such thing as single-issue struggle because we do not lead single-issue lives” (1984). Thus, a fight about class and labor is of course not just about class and labor—it’s about all forms of oppression, because all oppression is connected under exploitative systematic regimes of power). For example, one sign from the organization Freedom Inc. proclaimed “People of Color Occupying to Save BadgerCare, Food Share, & Workers.” This article notes that there has been an absence in showcasing the people of color that are involved in the protests, perhaps because “‘protesting while black’ is often a risky business.” That being said, one of the most prominent faces and voices in the crowd was a young man of color who led more chants than anyone (and who also happened to be a talented breakdancer, as the crowd discovered during the catchier chants). And I certainly witnessed a lot of age diversity—youth from U-W Madison and surrounding high schools have come out in droves. I saw quite a few queers, but only one sign making any explicit connections between the struggles—(the sign read, “Minnesota Queers ❤ Wisconsin Workers…feel the love!” and it happened to belong to two of my pals from MN!). So the diversity was not thriving, but that might have something to do with the demographic of Madison more generally.
While this is absolutely something that needs to be addressed about the labor movement more broadly, I want to—and I think I need to—focus on all that was right about what is occurring inside and outside of the Madison capitol building (and in Ohio and Vermont and every state where workers struggle everyday for their rights). The rally and occupation did everything that the best kinds of protests do: it made me tear up, it gave me chills, it made me laugh, it made me dance, and of course it made me feel proud—so proud!—to be working-class. How could I not feel all those things when an entire room full of people sacrificing “business as usual” come together to unite for worker’s rights, shouting for justice, and then, every once in a while, changing their tone to sing soft and robustly “we shall overcome….” and “solidarity forever….”?
When there was a lull, when songs weren’t being song and chants weren’t being chanted, something magnificent occurred, something that made me really believe what I tell my public speaking students: “finding and using your voice is an empowering act that can transform society.” During one of these pauses, anyone who felt moved would take the center of the rotunda and just start speaking: short, concise, but fervently impassioned speeches delivered by organic orators, all utilizing that invisible soapbox for the best purpose possible. In those moments, I thought that this is what it might be like at Quaker weddings; according to the Friends from Glasgow, “The [wedding], like any Quaker Meeting, is held in silent communion of the spirit…There is no set ritual and no sermon, but there is an opportunity for anyone who feels moved by the spirit to give a spoken message or prayer.” For some in Madison, this may be a seamless analogy; certainly many in the rotunda held signs asking What Jesus Would Do and made clear that their belief in worker and human rights were because of their belief in God. For those of us who may not be as inclined to turn to spiritual rhetoric to make sense of our politics, I still think this comparison has value. In her book Pedogagies of Crossing (2005), M. Jaqui Alexander defines solidarity as something inherently connected to Spirit and the Sacred. She writes:
“solidarity…is fundamentally intersubjective: any dis-ease of one is a dis-ease of the collectivity; any alienation from self is alienation from the collectivity….[solidarity] plots a course toward collective self-determination….[it is] the knowledge that ‘all things move within our being in constant half embrace: the desired and the dreaded; the repugnant and the cherishes; the pursued and that which [we] would escape’” (18).
For Alexander, acknowledging that intersubjectivity is a way to put the Sacred at the center of a political praxis that is usually based on Western rationality. I read this passage the day after I got back from Madison; prior to being immersed in that rotunda, I may have rolled my eyes at her interjection. But Alexander was right about the solidarity I experienced in the middle of that rotunda; I was truly in a Sacred space.
Signs of support in every local Madison shop, and the way firefighters followed by bagpipers marching down the street seemed commonplace by Day 14 of the protesting. Being put up by a friend of a friend who was eager to house out-of-towners and being able to see, in person, the now-famous Ian’s pizza, who have now donated pizzas to the Capitol from every continent! Reading about dignity and resistance for a grad school class, while sitting on the hard marble floor of a room filled with both of those things, embodied tenfold….
At times, my breath was literally taken away.
The late winter of 2011 seduced me with its struggles, awakening elements of my blood that had too long been dormant. The daily news of last month’s uprisings—from Tunisia to Egypt to Wisconsin to Puerto Rico to Libya—was a defibrillator on my jaded grad-student heart, electrifying sensibilities I thought were lost forever. I fell in love with resistance and struggle unapologetically in late high school, but cynicism and critique had kept my unabashed optimism for the potential of collective action to a minimum. As the academy taught the importance of deconstruction and the fictitiousness of binaries, I felt less and less committed to the fight between the “good” and the “bad.” There was too much grey, and it was much more difficult to fight a nuanced enemy. As I reflect on last month’s world-altering events and my time in Madison, I am left with questions, to be sure—(like: How does a movement based on universals, but that embody particularities (especially in the case of opposing ideologies) remain sustainable? What does my solidarity do, what does it mean; how do we best manifest solidarity? When do we decide to make strategic concessions for the sake of greater victory, most specifically in the case of watching the labor movement make itself most intelligible through pro-capitalist, nationalist rhetoric? Must I strategically edit my intersectional lens—for example, how can I cheer on the cops (which they do A LOT in Madison), and still maintain a commitment to stopping racist, classist police brutality? What makes a movement revolutionary and what makes it reformist, and is insatiability integral to democracy?). But I am also left with an overwhelming sense of pure affect, manifesting itself in the forms of utter joy, unbridled excitement, and glorious hope (a hope that decidedly reclaims itself from in-the-system campaign slogans).
I don’t mean to privilege reductionist social movement strategy over the political importance of destabilizing oppressive categories, because these movements, these struggles, they are grey. There is more to it than ‘Walker vs. Workers’ or ‘Mubarak vs. “The People,”’ for example. And although, no, there is no revolution in Madison—(if they win this “victory,” it is a victory that upholds the capitalist system)—the intelligibility of a recalcitrant working class (albeit a mediated reductionist version) may very well be a glimpse of the radical potentiality necessary for engaging in the nuanced struggle it will take for more radical structural change.
“Unlike a possibility, a thing that simply might happen,” writes Jose Munoz in Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009), “a potentiality is a certain mode of nonbeing that is eminent, a thing that is present but not actually existing in the present tense” (9). Marx and Engles might echo that “the conditions of [the real movement toward communism] result from the premises now in existence” (from The German Ideology, cited in Phillips), and C.L.R. James might call this “the future in the present” (in Munoz, 55). In Madison (and all the other places of popular struggle burgeoning like spring flowers across the globe), this resistance, this organized mobilization of the people, could be the foundation that many of us on the Left have long been trying to determine how to build.
The question, of course, is, what do we do with resistance after the spark is ignited? How do we sustain the struggle even if we “win” in Madison? How can ensure change remains progressive, and, for example, challenge what is already happening in Egypt, as women get excluded from post-revolution decision-making? How can we use this moment to raise consciousness without imposing agendas that do not resonate with the movement (and who do we define as inside and outside the movement)? As the line from Giles Pontecorvo’s film, The Battle of Algiers (1966), reminds us: “It’s hard to start a revolution. Even harder to continue it. And hardest of all to win it. But, it’s only afterwards, when we have won, that the true difficulties begin.”
These questions haunt me, but the specter, for better or worse, is still currently ousted by the memories of thousands of people joining together to defend the proletariat. And I will do everything I can to ensure that the energy I’ve gained from this revival of world-struggle does not stay trapped in romantic blog posts or the walls of academia, but instead manifests itself into productive action.