Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Dawn of Occupy! Madison Wisconsin.

The US has seen two distinct waves of popular protest since the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama as President of the United States in January of 2009.
The first wave of indignation was born out of the predictable reaction to a person of mixed race becoming the leader of a country which had only stopped lynching Black people for sport a mere half century previously.
Widespread resentment with the election result among a particular mind set in the US was quickly harnessed by such powerful people as Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers, who channelled this discontent into an ephemeral 'anti government' movement. The culmination of this was the establishment of the 'Tea Party', a reference to the original Tea Party of the mid 1770's which was a popular alliance of merchants and traders who objected to paying taxes to the British government.
Early 2009 had seen the Troubled Assets Relief Programme (TARP) put into place by the Wall Street executives that Obama had surrounded himself with upon taking office. Described at the time as a stimulus package, it soon emerged that the stimulus was exclusively for the financial institutions, and that the rest of the US economy, namely the useful, productive sector was to be allowed to continue its slide into a depression. 
During the summer recess of lawmakers in the US, congressmen and women traditionally return to their constituencies where they hold Town Hall meetings to listen to and discuss the concerns of the people they are paid by, and whom they are supposed to represent. By the summer of 2009 being a politician in the US was becoming a decidedly risky business though, with guns, including AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifles being openly carried at these meetings for the first time in living memory. Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch's newspaper the New York Post carried this cartoon in one of it's daily editions, linking TARP with the contemporary story of an escaped rampaging chimpanzee that had savaged a woman before being shot dead by police.

The film maker Max Blumenthall has recorded one modern day Tea Party rally for posterity, and the interviews reveal a tableaux of ill informed anger.
The success of US insurance companies and others in obstructing the kind of free or low cost universal health care available elsewhere in the developed world is common knowledge outside of the US. Inside the US though another narrative prevails, one of a 'go it alone' rugged individualism. The inevitable conclusion is that the US is a uniquely business run society, where the weak and the vulnerable are most often left to their fates, as this woman interviewed by the film maker so ably demonstrates:
Woman: My health care is great, currently I don't have a health care plan.
Blumenthal: You don't have health care?
Woman: No, but I'm fine.. I'm not worried about it.
Blumenthal: What if you get hurt?
Woman: If I get hurt? I have physicians in my family so I don't care.....
So she might have a mechanic in the family who can fix her car, but a physician?
Oh hi Joe, listen, can you come round later and do a little work for me?
Bring your tools …..”
As a hard working and presumably honest young citizen, Joseph Stack had concluded early in life that big business in the US is institutionally corrupt and best kept at arms length. He thus laboured to set up his own software engineering company, working 100 hour weeks, only to see his enterprise crushed by events outside of his control. These included interpretations of US tax law that continue to penalise people like himself while favouring the powerful and the wealthy. In February of 2010, Joseph Stack took his own life in a spectacularly public suicide, leaving behind his 'manifesto':
While Stack's act of self immolation did not ignite the US in the same way that Mohamed Bouazizi's ignited Tunisia ten months later, there has been a steady 'slow burn' of indignation and protest spreading across the country and stemming from the same root causes that bought down the Ben Ali government. Joseph Stack's anger and despair then can hardly be described as unique.
The first organised fight back by people in the US came out of Madison Wisconsin in January 2010 following the election of Governor Scott Walker there.
On taking office Walker had immediately gone on the offensive, with his State setting a precedent for attacking the public sphere that other Governors across the US would follow should he succeed. He proposed a law, doubtless authored by the good people at ALEC, that would abolish collective bargaining rights of public workers and reduce their pay and pensions. This is an agenda which is becoming increasingly familiar to people right across the world.
During his election campaign Scott Walker had forgotten to inform the people of Wisconsin of his actual intentions upon taking office should they decide to vote for him.
After the election and the return of his memory, Governor Walker was so appalled that people were opposing his plans to eviscerate public life in Wisconsin, that he threatened to call out the National Guard to put down what were peaceful, organised, non violent civil protests carried out entirely within the law.
The people's next step following the threat of the National Guard arriving on their doorsteps can hardly have been an encouraging one for Governor Walker. Tens of thousands took to the streets in the days that followed, and the modern 'Occupy' movement in the US was born when the State Capitol building itself was taken over.
The protests swelled to exceed 100,000 in Madison alone, while over forty other towns and cities in the state also saw protests of varying dimensions. The Wisconsin police let Governor Walker down badly during this period: having exempted both theirs and the fire-fighter's union from his union busting austerity bill, they were quick to thank him by backing the demonstrators and occupiers. The Capitol police refused to evict the occupation, which lasted for over two weeks. Meanwhile the fourteen Democrats in the State Assembly travelled to Illinois and stayed away, trying to block the Bill by making the State Assembly inquorate.
No useful account of what happened in Wisconsin during this tumultuous time is complete without mention of the infamous hoax call made to Governor Walker by 'David Koch', one of the immensely wealthy Koch brothers. The caller was in fact a prankster impersonating Koch, and they spent twenty minutes on the phone discussing tactics to break the popular resistance. During their recorded conversation, 'Koch' promises Walker to help in any way “we” can, and that “we” had thought about planting trouble makers in the crowds. Walker concurs, commenting “..we thought about that..”
After the phone conversation had been broadcast on the internet, Madison police chief Noble Wray felt compelled to comment, saying "I find it very unsettling and troubling that anyone would consider creating safety risks for our citizens and law enforcement officers."
He went on to point out that this was not a case of a police chief entering the sphere of politics, but a Governor entering the sphere of public safety.
Jim Palmer, executive director of Wisconsin’s Professional Police Association added: “...our members are incensed. We’ve had law enforcement officers from all across the state come and work at these rallies and work at these events for the last two weeks, and they have been very impressed by how peaceful everyone has been. And they’ve commented that to me personally. So, for the Governor or someone on his staff to even consider doing something that could put officers or members of the public in harm’s way is extraordinarily troubling. And our members are very disturbed by it.”
The attempt to defeat the bill ultimately failed after a long struggle which ended on the floor of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Governor Walker's budget speech meanwhile had spelt out a programme of massive cuts amounting to a billion dollars from school districts and localities. In the speech he had assured mayors, heads of schools and localities that he would provide them with the 'tools to get the job done', namely the anti union legislation designed to drive down wages, pensions and working conditions.
As had been predicted, once the precedent was set then other states, namely Michigan and Idaho followed and introduced similar legislation. In Michigan we actually saw the introduction of a bill which mirrors more recent events in Italy and Greece, where an elected government is replaced by a panel of bankers. The Michigan bill gives the Governor emergency powers to fire any and all elected town representatives and replace them with a corporation, or an official from a corporation to take over a town's administration.
Much came from this struggle in the 'laboratory of democracy' though, not least the realisation of the collective power of working people, long dormant in the US. You cannot legislate against a dangerous idea, and the only weapons that the masters have at their disposal remain the traditional ones of violence and skulduggery.