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film Divided We Fall: Memories of the Wisconsin Uprising in 2011

The story behind the Wisconsin Uprising in 2011—the struggle of class forces--has been told in some detail in several books, but a new film, Divided We Fall, supplies the crucial elements of drama that few of us in the marching crowds understood at the time. It is also a wonderful re-enactment of the whole scene, bringing to life the drama and months’ long glory of a fightback that mirrored and mirrors so many anti-austerity struggles across the world.

Divided We Fall: Memories of the Wisconsin Uprising in 2011,Divided We Fall - Image courtesy of WYOU Wisconsin Uprising Archive

Memories of the Wisconsin Uprising of 2011, with the weeks’ long occupation of the State House: marching crowds of up to 150,000 not once but dozens of times during the Winter and early Spring; the aged and highschoolers alike, singing and shouting; the grass roots solidarity of unionists coming from as far away as Los Angeles and as close as Illinois; not to mention the constant flow of inventive songs, banners, jokes and ceremonies. These memories or recollections of impressions all seem now so badly eroded, as if it were all a bit of counter-history, a grand radical dream. Media attention, often good at the time, disappeared soon enough and the world seems to have moved on. Little that happens in Flyover Territory can be expected, after all, to hold the nation’s interest for long.

Not that Wisconsinites have forgotten, or others should forget, precisely because of what happens next in the present. It appears, from the approaching First Hundred Days of the Trump, that the US is about to be “Wisconsinized.” Wisconsin’s triumphant Scott Walker administration, arriving to power in the state legislature just in time to manipulate the 2010 census and ensure the weakness of the Democrats’ opposition for some time to come, proceeded to assault women’s rights in every way possible, replace civil service with political appointments, destroy first government and then private unions with “Right to Work” legislation, and, as expected, ravage those allegedly job-destroying environmental laws (Climate Change language has recently been taken out of the Department of Natural Resources website, after the scientists themselves were pushed out, in droves). Most of all notable to readers outside the state, taxes on the rich were drastically reduced, and the plan to destroy public education raced toward its goal, processes that have only continued in the years since.

The story behind the story—the struggle of class forces--has been told in some detail in several books, but a new film, Divided We Fall, directed by Katherine Acosta and now showing up at assorted film festivals, supplies the crucial elements of drama that few of us in the marching crowds understood at the time. It is also a wonderful re-enactment of the whole scene, bringing to life the drama and months’ long glory of a fightback that mirrored and mirrors so many anti-austerity struggles across the world. For anyone interested in how this played out in a Midwest American town, here is a film at least as important as recuperation or analysis of Occupy Wall Street, and likely to be more intimate, taking place as it does in a city of only 200,000 or so.

The filmmaker has stressed in interviews that as a former academic, she wanted a “from the street” sensibility rather than distanced perspective.  Using a great deal of “amateur” camera work done by activists themselves, we get the feeling of Being There (for me and so many others, Having Been There). The participant-artists, for want of a better term, shifted their gaze and their cameras intuitively toward what seemed most important, in the same way as amateur sign makers seem to have decided on the particular message the morning of the day’s event or the night before. By contrast, the actual speeches, by political and union leaders, got old rather quickly, and for that matter, the more we learned privately, the more that various leaders seemed to be only going through the motions themselves.

The key point of the film, for me, was an intense recollection of this past, a case study in what happens when, quite unexpectedly, tens of thousands of people with no known leftwing backgrounds suddenly to take history into their own hands. But there also is a dark side, and Acosta does not turn away from it.

The Uprising may possibly have been foredoomed by the assumptions of those who placed themselves in its leadership. A retiring president of a national union reflected, not long ago, that more direct action, like peacefully placing trucks or buses so that the tunnels bringing lawmakers in and out of the Capitol (they obviously could not use the usual doors) were absolutely blocked—this was never even considered. Too dangerous, too provocative, unless you consider the actual outcome.

The same reverse logic prevailed among the state’s labor leaders on the scene. Interviews with union activists and a key former (as in now retired) union leader gets to the heart of the matter. As we stood, sat, sang and sometimes marched within the Capital building, the functionaries of the biggest unions met across the streets in the suites of the city’s prestige hotel, the Concourse. There, as we learn in the film, they did almost constant polling of public opinion—did potential voters in the next election approve or disapprove of the action?—and step by step, plotted the removal of activists from the same Capitol building.

Why in the world would they do that? Because, obviously, the citizenry itself had “gone too far.” Perhaps, it was imagined, the governor’s “Act 10” legislation against state unions, passed but held up by the fourteen senators who had decamped across the border, might be negotiated down or out. A confrontation of state troopers and the crowd--feared on all sides but looking somewhat more likely as days of occupation turned into weeks—would be so catastrophic that nothing could be worse. Some quid pro quo, went the thinking, would allow union membership to continue, perhaps with lesser salaries and benefits, but members would still be paying union dues. And in the meantime, union members and others would prepare for a successful election that would not only secure labor rights but also put the Democrats back in state power. (Remembering this now is a bit like recalling the dire or wistful predictions in August, 2016, that the Republican Party was, nationally, on the verge of collapse from a defeat almost too unbearable for conservatives themselves to imagine.)

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A little more context, most of it supplied by the film, is useful here. President Obama “called in his support,” that is made a call but declined to cross the border from some speaking appearance and come to greet us in our action. More than a year away from a re-election campaign, the president—the candidate met by a huge crowd in Madison on a bitterly cold day in 2008 months before his nomination-- seems never to have considered it. A very few national union leaders made an appearance either, although the AFT president who would later lead the parade for official labor support of Clinton was understood to have warned local teaching assistants against anything resembling militancy. Three or four celebrities, notably singer Tom Morello (who had grown up in Illinois, close to the Wisconsin border), made themselves available and raised our spirits at a crucial juncture or two. As Acosta’s footage shows so clearly, the real energy came from a mixture of workers blue and white collar—the strongest contingent being women, teachers and health workers—with a significant contingent of oldtimers. That is, hearty unionists whose jobs had fled with the close of factories, but who stayed loyal to the cause in what would likely turn out to be one grand, final gesture, proud old people marching for hours in the unremitting, bitter cold.

Democratic politicians and labor leaders did indeed manage to get us out of the building, with a contingency plan of their own. We were told to stop demonstrating, stop coming to the Capitol, and get ready….to vote. We could regain rights, halt the ongoing massacre of protective legislation, if only the governor and a host of legislators could be Recalled. And they would be recalled, in the elections beginning months away, if only we tried hard enough.

More than any of the previous several documentary makers, Acosta has shown, demonstrated through interviews, why this strategy was almost certain to lose. The state Democratic party had been moving centerward for a quarter century, shifting its base from factory workers and rural villages to the urban middle classes, and its fundraising base from Joe or Jane to big-money people. The Democrats, never strong in the state (a historically weak and notoriously corrupt party had been recreated after the collapse of the Progressive Party in the 1940s), possessed limited grassroots. Vigorous supporters of NAFTA and such by the 1970s-90s, they had badly undercut potential enthusiasm for their candidates, nowhere as much as in the formerly manufacturing towns where life itself had dried up.

It’s not a happy lesson, but one that should have become apparent to a Democratic party approaching the Fall, 2016, elections with one candidate who successfully appealed to the disillusioned. According to regulars, this would be a bad choice. Bernie’s opponent, a veritable emblem of upward mobility and glamor surrounded by the Beautiful People, Mrs. Clinton could not possibly lose. Or so they thought. Some leaders of crucial unions at the center of the AFL-CIO’s own reform movement back in the 1980s-90s, by now themselves decades older, actually mobilized and strategized in the Midwest, very prominently in Wisconsin, to….defeat Bernie Sanders. It was almost as if we relived 2011-12 over again.

On the film’s website, Acosta has a different and more upbeat message,  “during those brief periods in which people are roused to indignation, when they are prepared to defy the authorities,” they need to be educated and otherwise prepared to grasp that their ostensible leaders will almost certainly choose to draw back, to calm the waters, and in the process bring defeat, disillusionment and apathy. So: when we fight, we need to fight to win, even if “winning” means no more than a successful counter-struggle against the austerity being imposed up ordinary people across the planet. Divided We Fall, definitely. But united...perhaps we can win. At least we will not have prepared our failure beforehand.##

[Paul and Mari Jo Buhle co-edited It Started in Wisconsin, a documentation of the Uprising.]