How Did the Wisconsin Capitol Occupation Begin, Anyway?

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On the Tuesday after Valentine's Day, the Wisconsin state legislature found itself listening to public testimony that dragged well into the night on Gov. Scott Walker's proposed budget repair bill. Having learned that the joint finance committee would hear a list of speakers in its entirety -- no matter how many people signed up -- the Teaching Assistants Association, a labor union that represents teaching assistants and project assistants at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, had recruited thousands to testify that day.

Traditionally, the legislature listens to those who've signed up to speak for two minutes each, until the list ends.

The list isn't usually quite so long.

In an effort to stall the passage of the Republican governor's budget bill, the TAA, with help from other student groups such as the Student Labor Action Coalition and the Multicultural Student Coalition, rallied those in opposition, amassing a list of thousands of speakers to give over thirty hours worth of "hearings," as the individual testimonies are called locally.

Initially, the committee hewed to their usual practice, proceeding one by one with the testimonies, until suddenly, sometime after midnight, the committee adjourned the official procedures.

Those who hadn't gotten a chance to speak wanted their moment. "The Democrats were yelling and screaming outside of the hearing room, yelling, 'Let us speak, let us speak' -- they wanted to be heard," recalls Kevin Gibbons, co-president of the TAA. "It was very emotionally charged that night, it felt like we had such a short period of time ... there was an immediate existential threat."

That night was the first of 10 -- and counting -- that hundreds have occupied the Wisconsin state Capitol. The TAA hadn't planned to stay there overnight. "It emerged rather organically," explains Alex Hanna, the other co-president of the TAA.

After the committee adjourned that first Tuesday, the Democrats took over the proceedings, holding sham public hearings for those remaining on the list. It was late; the list was long. "Given that there was a large amount of people that wanted to speak, we decided to stay a night and it turned from waiting our turn to speak into an occupation," recalls Hanna.

Not only did the recruits want to be heard, but the TAA also hoped to continue pressuring legislators, and stall the bill. If they had gone home, they would've lost that momentum. "If you go home and come back you're going to have a lower turnout the next day," explains Gibbons.

Gibbons and Hanna both claim that no one person made the decision to spend the night, and that those affiliated with the University and other volunteers all recognized the need to stay in the Captiol.

As the night wore on, the TAA ensured the hearing continued, while others -- TAA members, student groups, and volunteers -- began organizing. They brought in food; encouraged people on campus to join; sent notices out on Facebook and Twitter; and ran a phone bank. "We made sure people were getting out here and told people to bring some pillows and sleeping bags," explains Hanna. "We were staying."

And as the rallies and sit-ins garnered attention -- by Saturday the 19th, 65,000 were rallying outside the building -- the TAA gained more support from volunteers, workers, and other unions to keep their presence inside the Capitol going. The association now has a calendar listing which union members will spend the night -- the firefighters one night, AFSCME members another -- and have a consistent 500 or so people spending the night each night in the rotunda, hallways and various offices.

Republican legislators moved Thursday to restrict the protestors' run of the place, threatening their ability to remain in certain rooms in the Capitol starting this weekend. But even if they have to reposition within the building, Gibbons doesn't think the Madison masses will budge.

"We're here until we kill the bill," he says.

Image credit: Getty Images

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Rebecca Greenfield is a former staff writer at The Wire.

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