2,000 Rally in St. Paul in Solidarity with Wisconsin Protests
by Jaime Hokanson--I've traveled to numerous rallies at the State Capitol in St. Paul; the vast capitol lawn usually makes me feel small in the shadow of power, anxious about finding "my people". But walking up Cedar Street Tuesday afternoon, as I joined two, then 12, then many more strangers walking in the same direction--well, more than a February chill hung in the air.
Approaching the capitol steps, we spotted burly men with blue "POLICE" sweatshirts standing at the main doors. While at most protests these guards would be there to keep the people out, on Tuesday they were members of the St. Paul Police Federation showing support for workers' rights.
Given this entrance, a radical tone was not what I expected for this rally--and indeed, the lead speaker was Minnesota's Democratic Governor Mark Dayton. But what I heard upon first walking inside was quite a bit more exciting than Dayton's tired cliches: first, a marshal announcing, "There's still room on the 2nd floor," and then, what sounded like thousands of people singing the IWW anthem "Solidarity Forever."
Coverage from Workday MN: "We won't let happen in MN what's happening in WI" | Unions Mobilize Nationwide | Peter Rachleff: Madison is Our Cairo || AFSCME Council 5: MN Workers Send Message in Their Own Capitol || Fight Back! News: Day 8 of Protest in Madison Demands "Kill the Bill" || Related at TCIMC: On Wisconsin! For Mass Actions, Occupations & a General Strike
The rally lasted from 4-5pm with as many as 2,000 people packing three levels of the Capitol rotunda, their chants of "Who does the work? We do," "Create jobs now," "We are one," and more echoing powerfully off the marble.
Kicking off speeches from a wide variety of union members, Dayton's address drew the loudest cheers from the liberal crowd, but looking around, I spotted many people seeming less excited. I asked one well-known local labor activist what he thought about the choice of speakers.
"Well, I'm not in charge," he said.
Urging civility and restraint, Dayton advised the crowd to "Be respectful and peaceful - even towards those with whom you disagree," and declared, "We are not the enemy - we are all in this together - we are all citizens of Minnesota."
His tone and advice may have been appropriate sentiment applied to interpersonal relationships, but not necessarily for a labor and popular struggle. In fact, it almost sounded as if Dayton was trying to pre-empt potential protests against his own government of the nature seen in Madison--should Minnesotans take note of Dayton's own proposed human services cuts, or his probable inability to fend off the full attacks of a Republican Minnesota legislature.
Dayton repeated the refrain that "because I'm here," Minnesota will not face the measures proposed by the Wisconsin GOP. "We will not let Minnesota become Wisconsin," he said, but who the "We" he referred to was unclear--the people, or Dayton and his ego?
Thankfulness for the Democratic Party should not have been the takehome message from Tuesday's rally. We know, for instance, that the billionaire Koch brothers who funded Scott Walker's campaign also contribute substantial sums to Democrats. We know that teachers unions are being targeted by the Obama administration, and we know that tax cuts for the super-rich and big business are bipartisan.
After the St. Paul rally, people filed out reluctantly, as if holding unreleased energy for more. Similarly, at a forum held by Socialist Alternative at Mayday Books on Minneapolis' West Bank Tuesday night, the 50 people in attendance expressed motivation to advance the action locally.
"I haven't felt this way since Seattle [in 1999] - and in Madison, there are far more people turning out It's like nothing I've ever seen there," said one speaker. Many people in the room had been to Madison at varying times over the past week and spoke of a changed popular consciousness and palpable excitement - but danger, too.
At the Capitol occupation, for example, the Teaching Assistants Association (TAA) has strong organization--but there is no popular occupation spokescouncil or assembly. The result is that the TAA often caves to the whims of bureaucrats, for example by demanding the many militant, anticapitalist or simply edgiest signs be taken down during Jesse Jackson's weekend visit.
As time wears on, the likelihood of an undesirable Democratic Party "compromise" becomes higher and higher. Having had plenty of time in Illinois to plot how to maintain their government's legitimacy, the Wisconsin Democrats and likely not eager to continue on their current course of noncooperation.
Many of us have been waving our hands on the street corner, with few listening to our concerns about the Democrats. We have rightly identified--and are beginning to help others understand--that without the popular uprising, the Democratic State Senators many are hailing as heroes would never have walked out.
But we must prepare ourselves and others for the possibility of the Democrats caving in--by doing so, we increase the likelihood that the desires pasted across the hallways of the Wisconsin Capitol will take on more significance than the desires of politicians within its Senate Chamber.
To do this we must take it upon ourselves to talk--the way Minnesotans usually talk about the weather. We must bypass the corporate media, which is paying less attention to the uprising one state away than to protests half a world away. And we must not limit the conversation to the public sector workers.
Wisconsin's business interests have embarked on a strategy pitting public and private sector workers against each other, relying on the much lower union density in the private sector to split the working and middle classes. Organizers and activists must confront and redirect this attack--"Proud to be a Public Worker," as many signs at the St. Paul rally read Tuesday, could be better stated "Proud to be a Worker." Public unions and workers should make demands that will benefit the private sector as well, such as wide-reaching jobs creation programs funded from taxes on big business and the rich.
Public and private sector workers, students, the unemployed -- this struggle must be for all of us. And all of us must struggle to increase our organization, both in Wisconsin and afar.
We must move beyond pride in exercising our "basic freedoms"--like a good teacher, we should challenge each other to exercise our advanced freedoms, including, if necessary, those not sanctioned by law and order.
On the ground in Madison, the endorsement of a general strike by the South Central Labor Federation - but only, so far, as a threat for if Walker's bill passes - is largely the result of work by groups like the IWW and Socialist Alternative, both of which had been circulating leaflets advocating a general strike for days.
The whole world is watching, and mobilizing, too--in the U.S., from Madison to Indiana, Ohio, New Jersey, Tennessee, Minnesota and more. With a variety of outcomes, Madison has the potential, like Tunisia, to be a spark that ignites the region into revolt--if we continue to organize and act now.
Are you in?
Looking ahead beyond the coming days and weeks in Madison, we also see this year's May 1 International Worker's Day demonstration in the Twin Cities. There are strong links to be built between immigrants' rights activists, public sector workers, and low-or-no-inome workers such as those organizing in heated struggles around Jimmy John's (the IWW), Chipotle (SEIU 26), Lunds & Byerlys (CTUL), and more. May 1 is near the end of the Minnesota legislative session, with several anti-immigrant and anti-worker bills coming up, and organizers may wish to march to the Capitol like during the massive St. Paul protest of 2006.
If so, thanks in part to workers in Wisconsin, the potential for an historic action in Minnesota in the near future is very ripe.