The Unbreakable Culture of the Occupied Capitol

Many of the same officers who guarded us during the day would take their uniforms off at night and join us in protest, often bringing large "cops for labor" signs with them.
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As Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker bolts the windows and bars the doors of the capitol building to scare, shrink and starve the ongoing protest within, it's important for everyone outside to understand just what he's so afraid of, and why.

I write this after completing a once-in-a-lifetime week in Madison, one of the many camped out in the occupied capitol building. And now I know why Scott Walker is so frightened.

Imagine a group of several hundred sleep deprived, hungry people crammed into a confined, noisy, bright, uncomfortable space for weeks on end. There are no showers, no reliable food supply or proper beds. They're surrounded by police day and night. And they're mere inches away from the chambers where the devastating legislation they're gathered to protest is being rammed through right in front of their faces. Surely, a recipe for total meltdown.

And yet there hasn't been a single episode of serious conflict between protesters or with the police. And there's no sign of any such confrontation to come. How is this possible? It's not an accident, and it's not a miracle. It's the product of a sophisticated, unbreakable culture that has evolved in the hallways of the Occupied Capitol. And that's exactly why Scott Walker is so desperately tightening the screws.

If you were to walk through the halls of the capitol building, you would see the bedrocks of this incredible culture all around you:

  • Responsibility. Volunteer Marshalls of every age and background, wearing now-iconic reflective vests, distribute information, convey instructions from the legal authorities and gently keep the peace. The Marshalls are all fellow protestors. There's no hierarchy to it, you just sign up with the Teaching Assistant Union (TAA) and get a brief training on that night's priorities. The system ensures the protest remains a largely self-regulating phenomena. This limits tension with the police and inculcates a spirit of responsibility and good stewardship amongst every participant.
  • Respect. Handmade signs everywhere urge respect for the premises. The bathroom door sign reminds you that "tagging the wall is hurting the movement." On the second floor a large poster reads, "Remember, this is OUR house -- so let's keep it clean!" When the cleaning crew takes their floor-sweeping zamboni out onto the rotunda floor, they are greeted with thunderous applause and chants of "thank you!" All the thousands of posters are hung with special blue tape that will leave no trace. In my entire time there, I didn't see a single example of permanent damage or the slightest desecration of the building.
  • Health. A dedicated volunteer medical team operates a well-stocked first-aid clinic (with all-donated supplies). Medics patrol the building wearing hand-made badges or red-tape crosses, looking out for injury or signs of illness. Hand sanitizer dispensers are taped to the walls. Piles of Emergen-C line the hallways. Before you can touch the megaphone in the rotunda, you're asked to use Purell.I can speak to the effectiveness of this system first hand: While distributing flyers one evening, I tumbled down a flight of stairs and badly sprained my ankle. Immediately, a man I've never met half carried me to the medical station, where medics who would never think of payment administered top quality care, cold packs, ace bandages and lots of attentive follow up. The Occupied Capitol has become a far safer, healthier place than, say, your average major city.
  • Generosity. Everything is donated. The community survives because people from Madison to Cairo have chipped in for Ian's pizza, Endless Bagels, or breakfast burritos from the organic cafe. Fabulous homemade stews and soups appeared daily for lunch until the police were ordered to ban crock-pots. I saw masseuses drive for hours and haul their chairs up three flights of stairs just to give free massages (before, of course, the massage chairs were banned). I saw people who had slept on cold marble for weeks gladly share or give away camping mats and pillows. This weekend, when food supplies were blocked and reserves ran dangerously low, locals started smuggling pizzas in through the windows from the snowy ground. (Prompting Gov. Walker's unspeakably cruel order on Monday to bolt the windows closed). And when the pizza supply was cut off, I saw people who hadn't eaten all day gladly share their only slice.
  • Non-Violence. Hand-drawn signs on every floor declare, "Remember, this is a peaceful protest". Every speech from the rotunda, no matter how thunderous, declares a firm commitment to avoid violence at any cost. When the AFL-CIO union officials announced their commitment to provide legal and logistical support, they made extremely clear all offers would evaporate for anyone committing a violent act.

    Every night, several trainings are held throughout the building on how to remain "peaceful and prepared." The volunteer facilitators help protesters understand their rights, but are equally focused on teaching breathing techniques and planning skills to avoid even an unintentional flash of violence during a tense moment.

    For non-violence to solidify as an unshakable collective commitment, it cannot come from above. It requires a thousand individual efforts to build resolve from the bottom up. In the Occupied Capitol, that resolve is everywhere.
  • Solidarity. Last Wednesday evening the entire crowd erupted in uproarious cheers as a line of Wisconsin firefighters in full uniform streamed into the building to spend the night on the floor with us. As one of the few public sector unions not to oppose Walker's election, the firefighters are exempted from the devastating restrictions in the Budget Repair bill.

    But what Walker didn't realize is that these guys risk their lives every day to save others from their burning homes -- and for people like that, solidarity is a way of life. One of the firefighters held up a hand-drawn sign of "divide and conquer" written in a circle with line through it. That pretty much says it all.

    The spirit of solidarity drives everything in the Occupied Capitol. It's why managers and students and private sector workers are sleeping in hallways to protest an attack on public school teachers and civil servants. It's the word two brothers from Madison camping with us had tattooed on their arm. And it's what defines perhaps the most remarkable feature of life there, the strongly positive relationship with the police.

    The culture of respect for the police in the capitol building runs very deep. We all knew they might at any moment be ordered to remove us. But we also knew they were never our enemy. As a giant poster on the first floor declared "Officers stand with activists, activists stand for officers".

    For their part, the Capitol Police, Madison Police, as well as the State Troopers and officers brought in from other municipalities were consistently friendly, helpful and polite -- even when forced to take all-night shifts sandwiched between two consecutive day shifts, as was frequently the case.

    The officers knew their duty and executed it well, but they knew we would be here camping out to defend their rights if they were on the chopping block (police unions, many of which also endorsed Walker, were also exempted from the bill). Friday afternoon I saw an elderly member of the pipefitters union going up to each uniformed police officer, extending his hand, and saying "thank you for being here." One of them smiled back and said, "thank you! We know if this goes through, we're next!"

    Many of the same officers who guarded us during the day would take their uniforms off at night and join us in protest, often bringing large "cops for labor" signs with them.

The Occupied Capitol in Madison has become so much more than a protest. Bound by these principles, it has become a tightly woven community which now stands together at a crossroads in history.

And these principles -- responsibility, respect, health, generosity, non-violence and solidarity -- are more than just the defining qualities of the protest camp in the capitol building. They are the values of the society we are protesting for, that Governor Walker is trying to tear down. They are who we want be, and how we want to live.

That's why Gov. Walker is so scared of this community. Because he knows he's not up against a fleeting burst of anger. He's up against human nature at its best -- and its strongest.

No matter what happens next at the stand-off at the Wisconsin Capitol Building, the occupation has given rise to a new and powerful culture. It's a culture that wins more allies and draws more strength every day.

And it is unbreakable.

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