Occupy Acknowledges Debt To Wisconsin Protests, But Watches Recall Election With Wariness

While Gov. Scott Walker was making his final pitch to Wisconsin voters Monday night in front of a crowd of supporters, a group of a couple dozen protesters outside banged buckets and chanted jeers.

They were there, Hannah Engber of Occupy Milwaukee said, with three demands: repeal Walker's anti-collective bargaining law, reinstate the state law prohibiting gender-based wage discrimination and "tax the rich -- tax the one percent."

"We're having a rally on Wednesday, actually, win or lose, just to keep people in the streets," Engber said. "No matter who wins, we want to hold our politicians accountable."

As Wisconsin voters go to the polls, grassroots activists both within and outside Wisconsin are watching with a mixture of anticipation and anxiety. Protesters in Wisconsin and Occupy supporters elsewhere say they are hopeful that Walker will be defeated, but they are determined not to let the Tuesday recall election be the final word on the state's austerity policies.

"There have been discussions amongst Occupy Wall Street folks about this," said Rebecca Manski, who grew up in Madison and has been involved with Occupy Wall Street since its first week in New York. "We're dismayed, absolutely dismayed that the Democratic Party kind of took over that really radical movement."

Nevertheless, she wants Walker to lose.

That ambivalence, shared by some on the left in Wisconsin itself, has its roots in how the people-powered movement embodied in the state capitol protests -- which many on the left compared to protests in places from Athens to Tahrir Square -- has morphed into a recall election supported, albeit reluctantly, by the Democratic National Committee. Over time, traditional party politics have become more and more prominent in the anti-Walker movement.

While some political observers now see the election on Tuesday as the final word on the matter of Walker's austerity policies, that position is anathema to many Occupy protesters' conceptions of democracy as a process that doesn't stop with a vote.

"We'd all be delighted to see Walker gone," said David Graeber, a professor of anthropology at Goldsmiths College, University of London who was deeply involved in planning the Occupy Wall Street protests from the start. "But the fact that Walker can pull on 20 times as much money as those trying to unseat him is a perfect example of why we feel the dice are loaded on the political field [and] we're trying something else."

Graeber, along with several other Occupy protesters in New York, said he was "inspired" by what happened in Wisconsin. But he was also cognizant that the supporters it drew in -- unions and the Democratic Party -- had different priorities than his own. The coalition of people who identify with the Occupy movement includes everyone from die-hard labor organizers to anarchists like Graeber who are resistant to unions' willingness to compromise with the status quo.

"They are standing for a fair position within the system -- really, defending themselves against attacks on the position they already have," he said. "We're trying to challenge the basic terms of the system itself."

That may be why there don't seem to be caravans of Occupy protesters heading to Wisconsin, or even declarations of support from General Assemblies across the country.

Jackie DiSalvo, a member of the Professional Staff Caucus at the City University of New York, remembered trekking out to Madison during the 70,000-person strong protests last winter. It was that experience, she said, that motivated her to get involved in Occupy Wall Street during its planning phase.

"The first occupation was the occupation of the Capitol in Madison, so people have a lot of admiration for the fact that labor people did that," she said.

But, she said, "I don't know anyone who's going out there" for the election. That may be in part because, on Occupy organizing email lists and elsewhere, "there is constantly outrage that someone from the Democratic Party is trying to co-opt us."

Charity Schmidt, the co-president of the Teaching Assistants' Association at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the earlier anti-Walker protests were one reason why the Occupy movement never really flowered in Wisconsin, despite its progressive heritage.

"By the time the Occupy movement proper started to pop up in Zuccotti Park, and parks across the country, a lot of activists in Wisconsin, they felt they had done the occupy thing and were now busy on other work."

Sometimes that other work meant direct action protests, like a recurring "solidarity sing-a-long," in the Capitol. Other times it meant working on gathering signatures for the recall. But even as union activists within Wisconsin contributed to that work, Schmidt said, they were conscious of the Democrats' differing priorities.

Many in her union were disappointed that Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the Democratic candidate in the recall election, refused to promise to veto any budget bill that does not repeal Walker's collective bargaining law. After that law passed, the TAA lost hundreds of members and was forced to convince its remaining ones to hand over their bank information one by one for union dues.

Barrett's reticence, she said, "points to this larger debate with how we interact with electoral politics, especially candidates that many question whether they actually represent the interest of our union."

"People really care about this election," she said, "but we also care about holding the people we elect accountable to us."

Mary Clinton, an organizer with the UAW who was also involved in Occupy Wall Street, straddles the labor and Occupy worlds. She is one of the few Occupy activists who have traveled to the state for the recall election. (Manski, for her part, said "we in New York are really not coordinating with them.")

In between knocking on potential voters' doors, Clinton told HuffPost that "there's a lot to the Wisconsin uprising, and this is one tactic that is being used as part of a broader movement to fight austerity.

"The struggle for progress and social justice doesn't end when polls close on Tuesday in Wisconsin."