Madison: Occupation and the Appearance of “the People” | Earl McCabe | The Hypocrite Reader

Earl McCabe

Madison: Occupation and the Appearance of “the People”


Artist unknown, advertising image of man speaking into microphone, 1919

“This is what democracy looks like.”
  —Protester in Madison

I marched, singing, through a line of cameras and excited supporters out of the Wisconsin state capitol building on Thursday, March 3rd, 2011. The two-and-a-half-week-long occupation had ended. It had served its purpose; it was an annunciation of a new movement and a new politics.

For a young leftist like myself it’s been an exciting month, with popular revolutions throughout the Middle East and an awakening of working-class activism in the American Midwest. The tactic of occupation became central to the struggles in both Egypt and Wisconsin: Tahrir Square in Cairo and the State Capitol building in Madison. People who have never considered themselves “political” were all of a sudden ready to stand up to the law and even break it in order to assert their right, as “the people,” to speak and be heard. These occupations are now over, though there is still work to be done for these movements to achieve their aims. This essay is a first attempt at unraveling the significance of the sudden aptness of occupation in Wisconsin, and at conceptualizing the transition beyond it.

Why Occupation?

Occupation, of the kind undertaken in Madison, is largely symbolic. It does not prevent legislators from voting, and it does not directly initiate much other organizing. What it does do is make the presence of the protestors known much better than a traditional rally does. This presence is continuous. Occupation presents a social subject who can sustain such an action and will not go away if ignored. My chief concern here is why occupation felt so natural at this moment. To answer this I’d like to present two basic facts: who the subject of the occupation was; and why, considering the historical currents this event interrupts, the form of symbolic presence offered by an occupation was appropriate.

The wrong being done by Wisconsin governor Scott Walker seems directed at a rather particular group. The cuts he’s pushed target state-funded services and the restrictions of bargaining rights apply only to public sector unions. However, the groups Governor Walker claims he is affecting are not the same as the new subject that, through the occupation, made itself known.

Walker and rightist pundits tried constantly to divide the protestors into the legitimate and the illegitimate, and label even the legitimate as a particular segment of society. This was their general tactic: just as they claimed that only Wisconsin citizens have a right to be heard (not out-of-state protestors), they attempted to present the public sector workers, in contrast to private sector workers, as greedy and ‘unfairly’ privileged.

The movement has consistently ignored these efforts. One poster in the capitol stated "outside agitators welcome" and as an outsider myself I never encountered hostility from protesters. As for the division between public and private sector workers, protest organizers insistently reframed the governor’s actions as a broader assault. The local AFL-CIO labor council states clearly on its website, “Make no mistake, this is only the first volley. He intends to come after private sector unions next.” At every stage where the movement in Wisconsin could have particularized its struggle it did the opposite.

The names of two major coalitions are exemplary: “One Wisconsin Now” and “We Are Wisconsin.” Both imagine a united statewide body beyond workplace divisions or social strata. “We Are Wisconsin” takes this logic of unification to a forceful, sensational conclusion. This name puts forward a symbolic claim, which is not that the movement’s opinions are what’s best for the entire state, or that their members are from all segments of Wisconsin society. Rather, this name asserts that the movement is the state of Wisconsin, and when its members are present, the state of Wisconsin is as well. Beyond these large and well-funded organizations, the occupation in Madison also allows us to examine the sentiments of individuals in the movement through the archive of hand-made protest signs. A sign hanging from a balcony in the capitol reads: “We Are WI >>,” a reference to the state motto “Wisconsin Forward.” This re-appropriation is not simply an affirmation of pride, but a polemical announcement of being present. It is a jubilant claim of birth and fulfillment—the people of Wisconsin are finally speaking up and making real a motto that was before a mere gimmick. It is also the battle cry of the people against their victimization. The wrong being done by Walker, the protesters insist, is done not merely to one part of society, but to Wisconsin as a whole.

From this understanding we must now ask why occupation is so suited to the unique character of a claim to be “the people.” To answer this we must first examine what ways of appearing as a social subject are currently dominant. The American media universe suffers from an endless performance of dialogue. This dialogue is staged between representatives of opinions that are meant to map onto every possible subject position. In order to cover the situation in Wisconsin, news programs scrambled to assemble individuals who could speak in behalf of public workers, economists, and Tea Partiers, who could enact the kind of civilized debate that our democracy was supposedly founded on. For this dialogue to be successful each major opinion must be presented. With the right collection of opinions, everything will be present. As a result it is impossible for one subject to claim to be “the people of Wisconsin.” If they did they would be corrected, politely, “No, you are only one opinion among many in Wisconsin.”

The occupation therefore had to find a way to present a singular subject that was not reducible to a specific opinion. It needed to create a symbolically unified voice without necessarily a unified content. This came in the form of "the people’s microphone." In the center of the building rotunda a small group of protesters got hold of a portable PA system. From the physical and acoustic center of the building they then offered the microphone to whoever wanted to speak. This meant that throughout the day the mic would be passed from teachers to police officers to students and even to outside agitators. The space reverberated with the sound of impassioned cries from people who told stories and offered analyses not as experts or representatives but individuals whose authority to speak came from their presence and the commitment it demonstrated. There was no single clear message, and no way to police what was being said, but in the pit of the rotunda the varied and contradictory voices were all welcomed equally. This trust that was created gave the speakers a sense that they all spoke together, and were all part of the same collective presence.

The space paired this with a listening process. Visitors gathered around the central balcony of the first floor, overlooking the rotunda pit where the PA was set up. Many of the thousands who passed through would stop at the balcony and listen. A new desire was forming and being fulfilled, to speak and to listen. This listening process served two purposes. First, it legitimized the speech of those at the microphone. Regardless of agreement the willingness to listen signified that the speakers were saying something worth listening to. This listening also helped unify the voice of the microphone by creating a stable spectator. Since the same people would listen for several speakers who might say wildly different things, these voices melded into one speech act.

This symbolic unification of varied opinions was also performed by the very act of occupation. An occupation must be sustained round-the-clock; this persistence produces a specific kind of appearance. It is illuminating to compare the occupation with a rally. A rally manifests its quantity, assembled towards a demand or concern announced in advance. Programmed speakers are chosen to be “on message” and press releases carefully lay out the opinions being expressed. After the rally disperses, the body that formed is gone. In contrast, an occupation makes this body its single, blunt claim: “We are here.” In ordinary civil debate, representatives express their opinion and yield the stage—they are there to represent, and, having represented, go. An occupation refuses to yield the stage, no matter the characteristic politeness of Wisconsinites. An occupation, which requires massive outpouring of material support, and deep commitment, manifests a body as capable of outliving its particular manifestation. People forsake grades and even jobs to manifest this presence. This rudeness and persistence is what opens the possibility of making an outrageous claim: “We are Wisconsin.”

After Occupation

The occupation is now over. An appellate court, in a single opinion, ruled that the state’s efforts to restrict access to the Capitol were unconstitutional, praised the occupiers, and ordered them to leave. The concern was simple: the occupation was volatile and difficult to contain without violence. It had done a great deal of good, but taken a great deal of risk. Indeed, the strong impulse towards peace was increasingly strained as the days went by inside the Capitol. Now that a modicum of success had been achieved, this risk was no longer worth it.

The gesture here was essentially parental. The occupation was seen as a juvenile act, a temper tantrum of the people. Those sympathetic saw it as appropriate because of the equivalent juvenility of Walker’s administration. The grown-up way to handle this would be to have a civilized debate and work out a compromise. In a very real sense they’re right; precisely this, the movement’s immaturity, must be worked through as we move forward.

Being grown-up is an ambiguous notion. In one sense it means fitting into the established forms of social conduct. But it also means developing into a flourishing self, becoming fully “who you are.” The next step for the movement must be to follow this second sense. The occupation was a joyous first announcement of “the people.” At every turn people said “Thanks,” expressing a relief and exuberance at finally being present. But this must be followed by a development of this subject into its full form. This development requires a space, which the occupation initially provided, where “the people” can present itself. It also requires that this new subject show itself capable of doing work.

The facilitation of popular presence takes forethought. It would be feasible to create a party or organization that claims to “represent” the people. But political parties belong among the paraphernalia of opinion; a party merely has “an opinion.” On the other hand, the direct manifestation of the people is interruptive and outrageous, and takes as its medium the headlines for dramatic events. In order to have some consistent appearance beyond such events like the occupation itself, which can’t be drawn out indefinitely, the subject announced will require a medium of presence that keeps available the possibility of the people appearing. Instead of creating institutions that preserve the presence of the occupation, we must create institutions that facilitate the people’s impulse to interject through a constant reminder of its own possible appearance.

The direction following the occupation has been heartening. One group of people from the occupation have created an organization, the Autonomous Solidarity Organization, which aims at creating more sustained activities around the Capitol. They’re capable of enduring the undramatic and dull infrastructure that will be required in their task, as is evidenced by their adoption of formal parliamentary procedure in their meetings. Thousands are being mobilized to knock on doors and stand outside grocery stores. The move to this kind of work is crucial. Here the image of participation is decidedly less sexy than occupying, but nonetheless precisely what occupation promised: the ability of a body to stick around, and to do so on its own behalf. Only this capacity for inertia, shared by parties and the institutions of opinion, will make enduringly possible the specific presence-to-itself heralded in the occupation: that of the people.

After the sexy and impressive moment of occupation I’m making a passionate plea for tedium. This is not about cooling the fire of the movement, but making sure that fire is capable of careful and deliberate activity. We must remain playful, but become serious in our play. We must be exciting, but have poise. The occupation in Madison was a birth, and we must be sure it leads to a healthy and strong grown-up movement.