Wisconsin Wave

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Yesterday’s march from Madison’s Fire Station 1 to the Walkerville camp and around the Capitol – stopping by the criminal M&I Bank along the way – was an inspiring spectacle, but things should have turned out better.


Among the marchers were dozens of participating vehicles – fire trucks, union cabs, tractors, AFSCME vehicles – that drove around the Capitol Square. The original plan was to use these vehicles to surround the square, blockading it and utilizing it as a space for political protest in the same way it was during the original protests over the collective bargaining law.

The story hasn’t been recounted in any local media outlets that I’ve seen, but this outline of the day’s activities had been approved by Mayor Paul Soglin in discussion with union leaders. The agreement was that the protest vehicles would be allowed to to block off the various entrances to the the Capitol Square, not allowing any other traffic in the area for most of the day. The agreement stipulated that the police would not interfere in this activity.

However, upon entering the square, protesters quickly learned this is not how things were going to play out. Union Cabs were told to leave the square after circling it one time. Other vehicles were ticketed. At the State St entrance, two protesters were arrested.

What happened?

From the various accounts, it’s become clear that Soglin, who was at the march’s starting point at the fire station, reneged on his promises to the unions, directing the Madison police of the change in plans about 30 minutes before the march began. Naturally, he made this call without talking with any of the protest organizers.*

I can only conclude that, given the relatively small size of the protest (perhaps a thousand people or so), Soglin decided that the resistance to his reversal wouldn’t be particularly potent, and so his political calculation was to side with “law and order” over those resisting the governor’s agenda. From a purely political standpoint, his decision was probably the right one (in the near-term at least), given the right-wing criticism of Walkerville and increasingly numerous voices opposed to civil disobedience.

[Edit: In a recent email exchange, Soglin claims he didn't have any contact with the police during Monday's protest, other than a simple "hello." He also claims that he only made it clear that he would "recommend" to the police to issue a series of warnings, an hour apart, which would effectively have the square cleared for most of the day. Clearly, this isn't how protest organizers interpreted their exchange, but take this as you will.]

I think yesterday’s turn of events serve as a reminder that, for those resisting the Walker agenda, protest (of various sorts) is our only reliable and most powerful tool. It was protest that gave the Democratic senators cover to flee the state; it was protest that exposed the Republican arrogance and forced them into illegally passing the collective bargaining law. Similarly, when our protests aren’t as large and/or confrontational as they should be, we allow our politician “allies” – be they Soglin or Democratic legislators – to betray us.

In short, if our sole instrument for change is the Democratic Party, well, forgive me for not exactly being hopeful about our prospects.

But regardless of what one thinks about this strategy debate, the fact remains that Soglin lied to yesterday’s protesters. I voted for the man, and I certainly applaud many of his actions during his early days as mayor, but this development is hardly encouraging and, frankly, says some discouraging things about his integrity.

*Edit: I’ve spoken with people who seem to be sure that Soglin made a call at the march directing the police to keep the square open to traffic. Regardless of whose call it ultimately was, I don’t think this point is really important. For Soglin to make a promise to protesters knowing full well he couldn’t keep the promise is effectively a lie, in my opinion, and equally indefensible. He’s the one in charge and so he’s responsible for what happened.

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