Bodies and Technologies in Resistance: The Wisconsin Union Protests, from the Ground

A sign greeting Capitol visitors, late night, February 20th, 2011.

Since February 12th, I have been involved in participating in and documenting the protests against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s “budget repair bill,” underway at the State Capitol in Madison, WI.  As an academic engaged with issues of both labor as well as critical media scholarship, I have been keenly aware of the peculiar situation of being both directly involved in the protests while attempting to think about them in the context of my academic work, and in terms of larger-scale sociocultural movements of the past 30+ years.  Throughout the past three weeks, I’ve found myself routinely returning to a position of negotiation between my public and private, political and professional, student, academic and grassroots self.  Of course, the binarisms of these juxtapositions are false from the get-go, but perhaps the negotiation process has been made more apparent and more acute as I’ve found myself, moment-to-moment, simultaneously making decisions, documenting, responding to developments online and off, and simply facing the challenge of extended time periods in very cold weather.


Radical author/artist/activist/zinester Sloan Lesbowitz contacted me and asked me if I’d be willing to talk to her about what has been going on in Madison, in part, in the context of the online technologies and media (e.g., Twitter; Facebook) at the center of so much attention and activity in Madison and elsewhere in the world.  Her questions were so thoughtful and provoked so much reflection in me that I asked her if I might share it with others.  With Sloan’s permission, the conversation is posted below, with a few modifications as needed (and the original can be found here and here). I hope it is of interest.


Sloan: At what point did you decide to head to the Capitol? Was there a specific issue, pivotal statement or moment where you decided?

Sarah: Actually, my first response with regard to Governor Walker’s egregious actions of February 11th was to take part in a small rally the very next day.  This was called for Saturday, February 12th at noon, and announced, naturally, on Facebook, in response to Walker’s late Friday afternoon pre-weekend “budget repair bill” announcement – a tactic used to mitigate the potential for response.  The event at the UW Campus’s Memorial Union had about 100 turn out.  I went with a friend.  We listened to a few speakers and talked between each other about what to do.  The plan to deliver the valentines to Walker on Monday, the 14th, was underway at that point.

On Monday, I joined about 2000 or so people who had convened in the Rotunda.  The majority of these people were affiliated with the University – TAs, students and faculty (and staff).  After that, I had to leave town on Tuesday afternoon and did not return until Thursday. I was desperate for news from the ground, and so began to heavily utilize Twitter, as well as Facebook, to connect with others.  At this point, larger scale protests had begun and I felt I had to get home.

Meanwhile, my friend (with whom I’d attended the Saturday rally) was featured on Democracy Now! and asked Noam Chomsky to comment on the situation in Wisconsin. As Professor Chomsky so rightly pointed out, the program being unleashed by Walker is part of a larger fabric of Shock Doctrine-esque economic policies designed to decimate the middle classes, extract all capital for the profiteers and to browbeat the populace into submission via the unleashing of so many terrible policies at once. Prof. Chomsky also, quite rightly, called out the national Democratic party, whose absence has been conspicuous, by identifying their compromised position as bedfellows with Wall St. What was also immediately clear to me was that this was a coordinated effort and that this boilerplate legislation, undoubtedly formulated at the level of the Republican Governors’ Association and bankrolled by wealthy oligarchs, was the trajectory for Walker’s campaign all along. I believe this fact has been borne out by the unveiling of nearly identical legislation across the country, in Ohio, Idaho, Indiana, and many other states.

So, it wasn’t that there was a pivotal moment, but more so that the series of events, beginning with the outrageous “budget repair bill” (usually just a cursory and routine mechanism passed without much fanfare) and escalating over the following days, absolutely demanded a response. All I could do was converge upon the Capitol.  It seems I wasn’t the only one feeling thusly, of course.

The February 12th demonstration at the Memorial Union, University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Just hours after Scott Walker’s February 11th late-afternoon news conference in which the elimination of collective bargaining for state employees was announced.
The Capitol Rotunda, two days later, February 14th, 2011.


Sloan: How long were you present, and have you been staying overnight or going home and returning?

Sarah: Since I was diagnosed with an illness and required frequent treatment last fall, I am now dividing my time out of state for part of each week for work and school, with the rest of the time spent in Madison, where I have medical and familial support systems.  I have been on site at the Capitol in some capacity each day I’ve been at home since February 12th.  That has, at times, taken the form of 10-hour days inside the Capitol and out, sometimes it’s meant coming in the evening and staying inside the Capitol until 3 AM doing my own work there; sometimes it’s been delivering supplies donated from my graduate student-employee union at my university to the University of Wisconsin’s TAA (of which I was a member during my Master’s degree), and so on.  I have elected not to actually sleep at the Capitol, although I have spent many late nights there, because I am in recovery from serious illness and need to rest at home for health reasons.  Many of my close friends have spent nights there.

The scene inside the Capitol has been unbelievable.  It’s been orderly, peaceful, community-oriented, self-sustaining and clean. I actually suspect that it has confounded and frustrated many GOP legislators, who could not fathom nor stand such an organic and organized outpouring of ingenuity and people power – without corporate intervention or authoritarian policies or politics. This self-organization has included such innovations as the creation of a medic station, a daycare, food stations, rotating bands of volunteer cleaning brigades, tampons stocked in the bathrooms, hand sanitizer distributed throughout the building, free socks, toothpaste and toothbrushes, a lending library, the entire of the Capitol covered in handmade informational posters (put up using special low-residue tape).  The Wisconsin State Capitol is a _revered_ building, and those occupying it have certainly treated it as such.  It was an amazing thing to have experienced.  Of course, this has now all been dismantled, and Walker and his cronies are illegally restricting access to the building, in the face of a court order and the State Constitution that prohibits this.

Democratic Assembly member’s door, covered in thank-you notes from pro-union Capitol visitors, February 20th, 2011.

Sloan: What are some of the qualities of the protesters? What are the conversations and daily interactions like?

Sarah: As you can see from this video I put together, the protesters are truly an amazing and diverse group of people.  On the two Saturdays, we had tens of thousands of people (a realistic estimate from last Saturday, Feb. 26th, is around 100,000 on site) from all walks of life.  Many are union members, but the membership runs the gamut from bricklayers to musicians to teachers to electrical workers, teamsters, public employees, airline pilots, firefighters, police, service workers, and so on.  It’s extraordinary.

I have yet to have had an unpleasant encounter with a union supporter. The atmosphere has been one of jovial camaraderie, mutual aid, sharing, thanks, and respect.  Have you ever heard a chorus of 100,000 people spontaneously shouting “thank you” in recognition of a positive act on the part of a politician, speaker, musician or leader?  It’s something I can’t describe in words.  People’s creativity has also shone through, evidence of which you can see in the video I made.  I can assure you, however, that the sorts of reports I’ve been hearing in the mainstream press are, by and large, completely inaccurate and mostly useless.  Fox News has been the worst with this. For example, I saw last night that they’d made a report, aired on the O’Reilly Factor, about attacks from unions, into which they’d disingenuously spliced in footage from another incident, only slightly changing the caption in order to obfuscate the origin of the video.  I mean, there are palm trees in the footage.  Have you ever seen palm trees in Wisconsin?  In February?  Yet, in the short time period in which that footage airs, how many viewers of O’Reilly’s program actually notice the palm trees, or notice the slight change in caption and differentiate this event from the wholly peaceful days of protest in Madison?

The magnitude of the deliberate media manipulation in the above example is unconscionable, but in just as many cases, the issue has been a lack of accuracy about the situation on-site, such as CNN’s significant underestimate of the crowd size from last Saturday. As a critical digital media student and scholar, with a focus on digital labor issues, I am fairly wary about claims about the purported power of social media to effect change when those claims err too strongly or uncritically on the side of technological determinism.  Yet I cannot express how important these media have been to me, and my fellow resistors, as we’ve endeavored to get a more accurate picture out about what is actually happening, including using the embedding of real-time media such as photos and video.  Blogs and CMS-driven sites (e.g.,, Twitter (hashtag #wiunion, among others), Facebook – these have been invaluable tools and will undoubtedly continue to be.  Cell phones, smart phones, cameras with video capabilities, relatively inexpensive flip cams, and so on, have been critically important tools for media production as well as for quick and immediate information dissemination – breaking legal decisions, maneuvers by the GOP to manipulate protestors’ access to the building, flash actions, etc. These technologies are therefore not only used for documentary and dissemination purposes, but also can serve the function of taking advantage of unique properties of geographic and/or temporal disconnect from the actual sites of activity themselves, so that a Tweet can be made from somewhere else int the city entirely, and yet still manage to bring hundreds or thousands of people to the Capitol, and do so with unprecedented speed.  Try doing that with a phone tree.

My own Facebook page, too, has been given a radical makeover and now serves as a clearinghouse for information, news articles, others’ photos or videos, requests for action, and so on, that I’ve personally curated.  I’ve lost a few Facebook “friends” in the process who may not be as captivated by these events as am I, but gained a lot more, including connecting online with numerous state legislators.

Beyond the dichotomy between mainstream mass media and organic, amateur and local citizen-media, there has also been a great void for accurate news reporting being picked up throughout the unfolding of this situation by alternative media outlets.  Democracy Now!, for example, has covered the legislative battles and ensuing protests, almost daily on their program.

Sloan: What has the queer presence been? I saw a fleeting rainbow flag in your video, but I am wondering about how all the issues are intersecting in real time?

Sarah: I’ve seen a number of rainbow flags, and a “Lesbians for Labor” sign. Mostly, people seem to be identifying and/or affiliating based on their unions, so they’ll be marching under the banner of “Milwaukee Area Teachers Association” or “SEIU” or “Teamsters Local xxxx.”  I can’t say I have necessarily felt this as a lack, but more that people are coalescing on the issue of labor, and bringing their personal and political identities to bear under that umbrella.  Certainly I see people I know from many different corners of social justice activism on the ground in Madison, so people are obviously clear how this draconian legislation will touch them, whomever they are.  As the saying goes, oft repeated these last few weeks, “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

“Lesbians for Labor” at the Capitol.

Sloan: Skip this if it is too personal or out there, though I think you were getting at this already in a lot of what you said. Can you comment more on the decision to protest with physical presence? Specifically, when I became aware (via Facebook) of your participation in the protests, I immediately thought about how you had recently been in the hospital. Followed by thinking… Sarah has too much integrity to sit this out. Sometimes our values make decisions for us. But what does protesting with our bodies mean in a culture so fixated on interacting through technology?

Sarah: This is actually a compelling and astute question, and I think it’s worthy of thought, so I appreciate you asking (and thank you for the kind compliment).  As you know, I spent November and December dealing with acute illness and had a very serious brush with death and a prolonged hospital stay.  Since I was discharged from the hospital at the end of December, my health has been my primary focus (whether I’ve wanted it to be or not).  This has meant dealing with the physical implications of having been sick – loss of stamina, fatigue, healing, etc. – as well as with the somewhat unexpected mental health issues of this experience – healing from fear, grief, the shock of going from wellness to illness, etc.  Frankly, I’ve often wryly laughed to myself in recent days that I owe Scott Walker one for getting my mind off my illness for the first time since I was diagnosed – thanks, pal.  Meanwhile, issues of health care funding and costs are obviously at the forefront of my mind (NB: BadgerCare funding, an erstwhile model program for state-level health care for those who cannot obtain it elsewhere and frequently a matter of life and death for those who rely upon it, is on Walker’s chopping block).  As I described earlier, the process of becoming active in this resistance movement was organic for me; I really just showed up that first day, February 12th, out of a sense that it was the one thing I could do. From then on, being physically present on the Capitol grounds felt like an important component of my act of resistance.  Body count has mattered throughout these events, particularly as a number of mass media outlets have mysteriously seemed to underreport the number of people on site (particularly last Saturday, Feb. 26th, when over 100,000 people amassed on the Capitol grounds and inside the building).

Interestingly, I’ve noticed that my own negotiation of physically present vs. acting through technological intermediaries has been more complicated than that dichotomy might initially imply, resulting in the blurring boundaries of physicality and virtuality, space and place, and creating interplay among the different states.  Rather, I’ve found myself at the Capitol in the midst of the unfolding events, chanting or marching with the crowd, with phone in hand for reporting out to Twitter, while holding onto a handheld HD digital video camera to record the scene – then quickly rushing to my laptop to upload the media, usually in a raw form, on the spot.  I’ve also been watching others do similar things; both protestors and documentarians of the events as they unfold.  It’s a process of immediate documentation, media production and dissemination.  I’ve been asking myself why it’s so important to me, personally, to carry out this process of documentation, and I had the answer handed to me quite concisely when I saw the now-notorious Bill O’Reilly clip describing (decrying) the “riots in Madison” as mentioned earlier. So, it’s a rather common sight to see arms and hands extended above over the crowds wielding video and still cameras.  Some of these resulting media artifacts make their way to Facebook, Flickr and Twitter, with some of it even being highly polished and professional, such as the videos by Matt Wisniewski. But a lot of it is simply being dumped onto hard drives and into personal digital archives.

All of this is to say that physical presence as an act of visible resistance has been and continues to be critically important to those in Madison.  But for those who cannot be present in that way – whether due to fatigue and a need to recharge at the end of a 10-hour day spent in sub-freezing weather in protest, or to being dispersed throughout the country (and world), online engagement has offered a critical outlet for people who want to hear testimony or view evidence from people on the ground. The relationship between the online resistance efforts and those on the ground is absolutely symbiotic, with each enhancing and extending the reach of the other.  But because of my close physical proximity to the events, as well as the direct impact on me and loved ones of the proposed measures, I was unable to be content with participating solely online. I am deeply grateful, however, for the ways in which those tools and platforms have allowed me to narrate what I see and do in near-real-time, wherever my physical body may find itself.  It also allows for people to participate physically to the extent of their abilities (such as people who might have illness, may become fatigued, may have different physical abilities that make longterm on-the-ground action difficult, and so on), and to carry on the work in the online paradigm.