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KABZUAG VAJ & LEE ABBOTT: The Epic Battle from Wisconsin

Drawing on a long history of worker struggles, and yet spontaneously responding to Walker’s all out attack, Wisconsinites took over Capitol Square in Madison. Beginning with over a thousand people on the first day, the crowds of teachers, students, public employees, union members, health justice groups, racial justice groups, firefighters, off-duty police, families, and impacted community members, reached over 100,000 people on Saturday February 26th, and joined in over 20 days of protest. Hundreds of people slept inside the capitol each night in the first two weeks, creating a strong community of resistance and support.  On Feb. 27th when faced with threats of arrest for remaining in the capitol 800 protesters remained to keep the building open for another day.


Much of the transportation to the Capitol, and coordination in the space was done by unions like MGAA and the TAA, but there was a nearly immediate broadening of the struggle beyond the “traditional” labor advocates AND radical organizations. Wisconsin community groups saw unions joining and fueling the fight in a growing battle of resistance to the Walker Agenda. There were more targets on more backs, and union families joined the working poor families and no-wage workers, as the legislative agenda threatened all of us.

What could have easily become a political struggle between Democrats and Republicans, fueled by “special interest” money and lobbyists – with some token membership protests and lobbying – became bigger than just the unions and parties. From the floor of the rotunda the push/pull pulsing of the protestors – the joy, music, and spontaneity of the crowds – could not be contained into the tired tactics of business unionism with its over reliance on electoral politics and legislative solutions. It could not even be defined by our experience as “protests.” But during those few, but very long and delirious weeks of rallies and sleep-ins in the capitol, the intensity of resistance proved as surprising as inspirational. It has surprised all of us because so much that we took for granted about class and race politics in Wisconsin, about this nation, unions, and radical activism was being rewritten in action.

Wisconsinites know there is so much in the budget repair bill and budget, hurting so many communities beyond unions. For example the education implications in this budget mean teachers not only face the loss of collective bargaining, but families in Milwaukee face the loss of Title 1 funding to pay for the children’s public education. Milwaukee Public Schools School Board President Michael Bonds stated expected budget cuts will be so severe, that “The education we know in Milwaukee will no longer exist.”

Along with education, Wisconsinites face the loss of Medicaid and BadgerCare. The Tea Party agenda and this budget repair bill allows for the gutting of our state health care system. By allowing for reduced eligibility and benefits in BadgerCare, the million people on that system in Wisconsin are under risk of losing health services. We cannot allow the shifting power of determining eligibility to the Department of Health Services behind closed doors. The Save BadgerCare and Save Medicaid coalition voiced this in the media, while youth at the Capitol occupied to save their families BadgerCare access.

Another current fight for poor communities, and an example of how conservatives use Wisconsin as a testing lab in the war against people of color, is increased incarceration. A study done by Mother Jones Magazine shows that Wisconsin’s Black population is 6% but it’s incarcerated Black population is 48% . While this budget repair bill has been moving, the State Senators passed a bill passed against documenting police stops as evidence of racial profiling in WI. They have also drafted a AZ copy-cat bill that would enable more discrimination of drivers.

The alliances at the Capitol have been as unexpected as an army of the dead. For example, the WI Police Association slept in the space to keep the occupation continuing. The firefighters also slept in and marched through the Capitol with bagpipes to support the protest, everyday during the occupation. During it’s closure, hundreds of firefighters, who had rallied with protesters, demanded in.

These temporary alliances are matched with deeper and growing alliances between more radical flanks of labor and labor strongholds. Community organizations like Freedom Inc. have had more of an opportunity to meet with labor and see a broader agenda. Unaffiliated activists in this popular uprising have stayed connected, and are continuing this social justice movement.

In order to deepen the “movement” – in this the popular uprising against neoliberalism – activist organizers need to think about alliances and action. First, alliances: the relationship between unions and communities of color is still alienated, despite the high levels of unionization among certain groups. Communities of color, who aside from a few leaders, are still marginalized within Wisconsin’s labor movement.

The release of Walker’s full budget proposal, though, has revealed what communities of color long expected – a renewed attack on their rights and assets. The interests of labor and the interests of people of color have long been seen as synonymous (evidence the activism of CLR James, or the League of Revolutionary Black Workers), though not always practiced that way by the white leadership of unions. This must change, and broader, community oriented organizing and direct action collaboration with communities of color is necessary to strengthen emerging alliances.


With unions in the lead, there was a need to intervene on the racial, patriarchal tendencies of the labor movement. Organizations like Freedom Inc have organized queer youth and other youth of color, from the Southeast Asian and African-American community, into this movement. In doing so, we support collective bargaining, and our agenda for jobs and life-saving services. We have been joined at the Capitol by other youth groups, such as Urban Underground from Milwaukee.

Freedom Inc. youth spent nights at the Capitol, and were a daily presence during the occupation. Freedom Inc.’s banner flew high, calling for the defense of workers, and life-saving services like BadgerCare and FoodShare. Part of the challenge is that no matter who is on our side at this moment in time, we must still make the time to deal with our histories. While we are in solidarity at this time on many fronts, the fact remains at there is much work to do to repair the hundreds of years of oppression of racially marginalized communities by institutions with deep racist policies and agenda, such as the criminal justice system (who used the police as front line soldiers).

How does one sleep on the same floor with someone from the same system who unjustly/violently arrested them just a few months ago? Do how you feel safe being in the same fight? How do people who traditional don’t have voice now work with people who need their voice? How do we engage the unemployed in this battle for good jobs? These are all question that Freedom Inc folks, and many communities impacted by this bill, must deal with.

Freedom Inc has also been challenged to create a rally within a rally. How can we work to create a voice within the bigger voice? How do you tell unionized people of color who are silenced/invisible at their own union meeting to come and support the “movement rally” when they have never felt supported within their own union? These are questions we must answer to Hmong and Black people we speak to.

We also are matching a response while educating more of our own people about the issues. It is a challenge to do the deeper analysis of why we must now work together, when relationships still must be built. But doing nothing and standing with no-one is worst than not standing up at all. Do you stand with people who have no idea or don’t care after this bill—what your quality of life is going to be like if your essential life saving services are cut—or do you say I rather not stand with folks who don’t care about me?

So while supporting the Capitol efforts is critical, community organizers have double duty to make sure this work is engaging the most impacted by this bill. Freedom Inc continues to outreach in the community about what this bill means. We realize that many families impacted by Medicaid/BadgerCare, and other cuts to life-saving services, may not be at the protests.

We are all fighting for a quality of life. For some it means saving their union job, for others it means the future of public education.  For some it means their subsidized low-income home, some it means their health care or food stamps—others life threatening free transportation to medical appointments.  The stakes are high and the WI Gov.’s budget has been call “revolutionary” by policy wonks because it puts everything on the table for elimination–food, shelter, and medical care.  At the end it is all the same…we all want the right to basic human rights –and the right to “bargain collectively” for a better and just life.

This is why many chose to fight and protest the Walker agenda. Freedom Inc. joins this fight because we have no option but to fight. We have been fighting since we can remember. Our hope and expectation is this epic fight in Madison for working families, and all families, forges new alliances and builds a powerful new force yet unseen.

Confirming the power of the people in this epic battle happening in WI is that the outcome is largely unpredictable.  It is out of the hands of the Governor, the Unions, and 14 Senate Democrats who are still out of the state.  There are too many moving parts (democracy) and the undercurrent shifting the various “big players” is the impressive level of prolonged public engagement.

Putting this movement in fuller perspective will have to be the work of a longer piece, and understanding what is going on here from an organizer’s perspective will have to be an endless process of research, history, memory, and reflection. With events rapidly changing each day, organizers must make the time to reflect and share analysis with each other. Keeping our eyes on the grassroots – and adequately understanding what that term refers to – will be like keeping our eyes on moving targets. Sharing, mapping, critiquing, and writing will help us grasp the changes that are happening and respond with radical solutions that point us toward the Wisconsin we want, not just a temporary victory over legislation.

We understand different communities will have different targets and solutions, and there is not just one way to advance a people’s agenda. As long as we stay in community and remain accountable to the people and impacted communities, we will keep moving Wisconsin forward.


Kabzuag Vaj is the  Co-Executive Director of Freedom Inc. Freedom Inc. Is a Madison-based non-profit organization that began organizing within a community of Hmong youth. Starting as the Asian Freedom Project in 2000, it created youth-led collective learning groups to gather on issues impacting their daily lives and to create opportunities for popular education. FI’s mission, to end violence against women and children, challenges the conditions that prevent freedom and  includes topics of violence against women, racism, economic and health justice.

Lee M. Abbott is a graduate student and instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and is co-president of the Milwaukee Graduate Assistants Association. He is currently engaged in the struggle to protect collective bargaining rights and against the cuts to Wisconsin’s public sector and community assets. Lee moved to Milwaukee in 2005 from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he grew up and was involved in student, community, and environmental justice organizing at Louisiana State University and in the surrounding neighborhoods.



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