Justice is in the air

March 1, 2011

Leia Petty, a public school counselor and member of United Federation of Teachers in New York City, talks about the experience of seeing the uprising in Wisconsin.

"BREATHE DEEP Wisconsin. Justice is in the air!" This was part of a statement written by an Egyptian activist in support of the struggle in Wisconsin and read aloud into the "people's mic" inside the state Capitol building in Madison, where thousands of unionists, students and their supporters were continuing their nearly two-week-old occupation against Gov. Scott Walker's assault on working people.

There is a lot in the air in Wisconsin: justice, solidarity, struggle, dignity, determination, generosity. You see it and breathe it everywhere.

When I first set foot in the Capitol building over the weekend, I was completely overwhelmed. There wasn't a wall that wasn't completely plastered with homemade signs and union placards. The most inspiring was a huge piece of butcher paper that said: "In the event of a general strike, I vow to support workers"--with hundreds of names signed to it. A group was singing "Solidarity Forever" to greet those entering the Capitol.

Every contingent entering the Capitol walks through this hallway, and the people's mic (situated in the middle of the rotunda where anyone can line up and speak) is temporarily silenced to welcome them: Crowds surrounding erupt in cheers, whether in greeting students, firefighters, members of Iraq Veterans Against the War or a high school drum line from Milwaukee that took over the center of rotunda for a 10-minute routine.

Members of Iraq Veterans Against War march in solidarity with Wisconsin workers
Members of Iraq Veterans Against War march in solidarity with Wisconsin workers

Once a contingent walks through the middle of the rotunda, they usually do a circle around the floor above to another round of cheers. The sense of pride and dignity has returned to many who have never felt it in their life: proud to be union, proud to be a worker, proud to be standing up and knowing you're not in this fight alone.

It is immediately clear after spending an hour inside the Capitol that it has been completely taken over, physically as well as politically. This is why it has not been easy to evacuate people, though the authorities are certainly trying.

While I was there, the Capitol was currently under the people's control. Those who have been occupying the building for two weeks self-organized a fully functioning 24-hour day care center, medic station, charging station, food distribution center, lost and found, and "free stores" with donated diapers, toilet paper, tampons, sleeping bags, socks and other basic needs.

And by "needs," I mean what is necessary to continue a full occupation.

There is an information station and protest marshals who try to remain up-to-speed on the latest developments and assist people new to the Capitol--essential for broadening the occupation's participation. Town halls were organized both nights I was there at 8 p.m. to communicate updates about logistics concerning food sources, meetings happening inside the Capitol (such as civil disobedience trainings), day care center information, the latest statements from police, and any information necessary for those new to sleeping in.

People are encouraged to take shifts to help with food distribution (reintroduced after the Teaching Assistants' Association retreated by giving up their offices inside the Capitol and ending food distribution the day before), and volunteers for the information station also take shifts cleaning.

This level of organization and solidarity don't just exist inside the Capitol. I left a few times in the two days I was there and was greeted on the streets with smiles and incredible generosity.

On Saturday morning, a building trades local set up a block-long free Bratwurst station. Breakfast of champions! Free Ian's pizza (now famous for receiving orders from around the globe to be sent to the protesters) and coffee stations were in another corner. Even when in line at a take-out restaurant later in the day, the guy in front of me gave me his leftover gift cards to pay for my meal. I didn't even have a conversation with him!

SOLIDARITY REIGNS, and there is a high level of trust that accompanies it. One woman who has emerged as one of the main leaders inside the Capitol occupation said, "As an African American woman, I don't feel safe out there. But I feel safe here. The Capitol building has become the safest place in this country."

People leave bags unattended for hours. While many stay by their phones and computers at the charging station so that they can continue using them, most just plug in their phones and return to them when they're charged. At one point, I found myself surrounded by a group of construction workers and I commented to another woman, "I think this is the first time I’ve been surrounded by a group of men in hard hats and not felt like I was going to be sexually harassed."

Trust and solidarity also means equality, and every service provided by the occupation was deemed "equal opportunity." This meant that homeless people slept in the Capitol and got free food. One homeless guy I was sitting next to and talking with even offered me some wine from his thermos. There was no reason why they should have to return to the freezing cold streets of Madison. It was their "house," too.

Being from New York City, part of me initially thought I was just experiencing some kind of Midwestern friendliness I had heard so much about. I'm sure there's truth to that, but it came from a place so much deeper.

For the first time in my life, I experienced class solidarity on a mass scale. It was just understood that everyone you interacted with was on your side. And that a line had been drawn in the sand: it was our side versus the Walkers and Koch brothers of the world.

I've never high-fived and hugged so many strangers for no reason other than sharing a moment in history. I met and spoke with a father and son who came together, both Teamsters from a Chicago local, proudly wearing their union bomber jackets.

I asked them what they thought of private-sector workers being pitted against the public sector. They thought it was "bullshit." We talked about the 1997 UPS strike and how UPS had tried to divide part-time and full-time workers, and the parallels of how the bosses try to divide us today. The conversation meant a lot to both of us, and we learned a lot from each other. Afterwards, the father asked if I would take a picture with him.

Political conversations are happening everywhere: every street corner, every restaurant, at the charging station, during cigarette breaks, in the line to get into the Capitol. No one feels like a stranger, and you talk to whoever is sitting or standing next to you, no matter where you are.

At one point, a member of AFSCME from Iowa was standing next to me and wearing a button that said "Fund jobs, not wars." I saw many references to war spending throughout the day. I told him I liked his pin.

He was an older worker, with white hair and a raspy voice. He said he had tried to form a progressive group in Iowa against the war, but it was small, and he was struggling to keep it alive. He was excited to talk with someone about the war and the insanity of the Pentagon budget.

He asked if I had seen the metal pin he had on his jacket. I hadn't. He then explained to me that it was a pie graph about the relationship of war spending to all other social spending. It was a beautiful pin. After talking more, he insisted that I have it. This was one of the many moments when I was brought to tears.

EVERYONE WHO came to this place, everyone who has invested so much in this struggle, even if only for a few days, will never be the same. It is certainly true for me, but what is more inspiring is that this is true on a mass scale. The protests in Madison have brought hundreds of thousands of people through, and they have tasted democracy.

The vast majority of people at the protests are from Wisconsin. But people have been inspired from all over the country, and traveled to witness this struggle and take part in this. I felt compelled to go to Madison after hearing of the teacher sickouts and the stories relayed to me by a friend and comrade who traveled to Madison earlier in the week.

When I saw a sign that said "Outside Agitators Welcome," I immediately decided that I wanted a turn on the people's mic. I waited in line while helping to lead chants. The most popular ones were "This is what democracy looks like!" and "Who's house? Our house!"

When another firefighter local came through, we started chanting, "The workers united will never be defeated," giving high-fives to every firefighter walking by. They were followed by firefighters on bagpipes who led the crowd in "Amazing Grace" and slowly everyone raised their fists.

An older woman across from me and a young woman standing next to me began weeping. The words, "I once was lost but now am found, was blind, but now I see" never felt so true to so many people.

In his articles on the Egyptian revolution for SocialistWorker.org, Ahmed Shawki describes the uprising as the "return of dignity to Arabs around the world." There is no question that the struggle in Wisconsin is also a return of dignity to working class people across this country.

I felt proud to speak into the people's mic, saying that I traveled from Brooklyn in New York City, inspired by the sickouts by teachers in Wisconsin. We're told every day by politicians and the media that we're the "problem with education" in this country, and greedy for wanting secure pensions and affordable health care. It's impossible not to internalize this message, even when you know it's not true.

But this feeling completely left me while I was there. Thunderous cheers followed when I said that I was a public school counselor from New York City. I've never felt so proud. Other teachers who remembered my speech hugged me throughout the rest of the afternoon as we exchanged stories of our working conditions, and what the future holds for us if we don't keep fighting.

While the scale is different, the parallels to the struggle in Egypt are profound and not lost on most people. There were plenty of signs and speeches that demonstrated this.

At the end of the second town hall meeting I was part of, a letter was read aloud from one of the activists in Tahrir Square, Egypt. It read:

To our friends in Madison, Wisconsin: We wish you could see firsthand the change we have made here. Justice is beautiful, but justice is never free. The beauty in Tahrir Square you can have everywhere, on any corner, in your city, or in your heart.

So hold on tightly and don't let go, and breathe deep Wisconsin! Our good fortune is on the breeze, in the Midwest AND in the Middle East. Breathe deep, Wisconsin...because justice is in the air! And may the spirit of Tahrir Square be in every beating heart in Madison today.

REFERENCES TO Tahrir Square also came up in a meeting the International Socialist Organization helped to initiate the night we heard that the police were going to evacuate all occupiers the following day at 4 p.m. After attending a nonviolent civil disobedience training, we decided to organize a meeting under the "Tax the Rich" banner to discuss a plan for outreach to pack the Capitol.

Some of the occupation organizers wanted to comply with police orders without any resistance. Others had already begun planning for civil disobedience, stating over the people's mic, "Everyone has a choice to make at 4 p.m. If you decide to leave, that's fine. But if you decide to stay, you will not be alone."

But as quiet hours began, there was no public plan for outreach that could pack the Capitol in the way necessary to potentially avoid arrest altogether. What began as a conversation of 10 beginning at 10:30 p.m. swelled to a conversation of 50 by 11 p.m. There were debates about whether the cops are completely on our side and the strategic importance of the Capitol building.

Those who were arguing for complete compliance with police orders to leave were far outnumbered. Many people felt incredibly invested in the occupation and argued that similar to Tahrir Square, it has symbolic as well as strategic functions for continuing the movement. One guy stated that meetings such as the ones we were having are only possible if we don't surrender this space.

Everyone agreed that packing the Capitol was key regardless of whether you were planning to do civil disobedience or whether you thought the police were permanent allies.

It was incredible to take part in such a democratic moment (of which there were and are many) where every voice was respected and every voice counted. As one activist told me earlier, "Everything we do matters. It's exciting and terrifying." After the meeting, everyone got out their sleeping bags and blankets, found a space, huddled around those who became your new friends, and tried to sleep.

For me, it was new, but many already had their occupation bedtime routine down. Sleep is basically impossible (marble floors don't help) and conversations continued throughout the night and into the morning. But sleep is also crucial for anyone for whom this is a long-term fight.

Upon returning to New York the following day, I was exuberant upon hearing word via Twitter that no arrests were made on Sunday as hundreds packed the Capitol and thousands rallied outside.

Scott Walker would like to publicly announce his budget Tuesday in a speech he must, by law, make in the Capitol, and he would prefer if he could do this without the building being occupied. Maintaining the occupation of the Capitol is essential to continuing a democratic movement and has been the means by which legislation is currently halted. It's the place where people can go, meet others, learn from each other, get organized and then go back into their communities, workplaces and classes to organize more.

The Capitol occupation is far from the only struggle happening in Wisconsin, but it's an incredibly important one. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who are working courageously to continue it.

Everyone who can (I mean everyone!) should travel to Madison to experience, learn from and help develop this struggle. You will never be the same.

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