MADISON, WI—Danny Spitzberg sits back in his chair, gazing straight ahead through his large, round, professorial glasses. Sitting in the conference room commandeered by the Teachers Assistants Association (TAA), it appears he has not shaved for exactly four days—which makes sense, since he has been holed up in the state capitol here for exactly four days.
Four days, and Spitzberg and his colleagues are still in the state capitol, along with a few hundred others, mostly teenagers and 20-somethings.
It’s common to read about millenials’ impulsive and self-centered behavior, their unwillingness to engage with community, their obsession with the trivial. But the protests in Madison have revealed a large group of young people who were quick to organize intelligently and strategically, and who will not back down anytime soon.
The building opened on 10 a.m. Tuesday, when Wisconsin citizens and public sector workers first began testifying against the Budget Repair Bill, proposed by recently-elected Republican Gov. Scott Walker, in hearings in front of state representatives that TAA helped organize. The list to speak was so long—and citizens’ anger so great—that lawmakers decided to let the testimony run well into the night. TAA organizers kept finding new people to sign up to testify, even waking protesters asleep on the capitol floor; four days later, the testimony continues, literally uninterrupted, and the capitol is still occupied.
“The TAA has played a fundamental role in keeping things going,” says Spitzberg, 26, a graduate student in the sociology department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and TAA member. “At several points, if it wasn’t for TAA, [these protests] wouldn’t be happening.”
The Budget Repair Bill is Gov. Walker’s bid to reduce the state’s gaping budget deficit of over $3 billion by gutting collective bargaining rights and cutting wages and benefits for public sector employees in Wisconsin. Coverage of the protests has picked up steam since they began earlier this week. Public workers themselves—teachers, sanitation workers, firefighters—have swarmed the capitol, and have been the subject of almost all of the coverage. This is unsurprising, since their jobs will be directly, immediately affected by the bill.
But young people have a played a critical role in the protests. Motivated by concern for both for their present and their future, as well as the desire to stand with workers whose basic rights could be decimated, youth have been central to the Midwestern Uprising of 2011.
The two most striking features of the Wisconsin protests are their massive size and their palpable energy and anger. There were around 30,000 people present on Thursday—the largest demonstration in the city since the Vietnam War-era. But the numbers can’t convey the tension on the ground. Circling the capitol and walking Madison’s streets during the day, it is impossible to ignore how angry people are. Gov. Walker’s bill has struck nerves in diverse groups of citizens.
High schoolers from throughout the state marched around the capitol with their teachers on Thursday, teachers who had called in sick if their classes weren’t already canceled. At one point, hundreds of students stood chanting, completely blanketing the stairway to the building’s entrance.
While marching with her classmates on the southwest side of the capitol, Alena Garcia, 15, spoke angrily about Gov. Walker. “He has no idea what’s actually going on in schools,” she says.
Garcia came from Horlick High School in Racine, and says her teachers had been unfairly attacked: “Teachers aren’t even paid well!”
Seventeen-year-old Jake Solomon from Verona High School in Verona, calls the bill “pointless.”
“I understand that we have this $3 billion deficit, but this is not the way to fix it. And taking away collective bargaining rights does nothing to help that—it just takes away public workers’ voices,” Solomon says.
He echoed a concern common among other students at the protest: The Walker bill’s potential impact on future students.
“I have a little brother and sister in high school, and this could definitely affect their quality of education.”
Throughout the week, in the daytime, students were outnumbered by union members, many of whom came to Madison with their families. But at night, it was the students who maintained a strong presence inside the capitol, laid out in sleeping bags on the cold marble throughout all five levels of the building. That presence helped the momentum build throughout the week, instilling the clear sense by Thursday that the capitol was now the People’s house and setting the tone for the boisterous protests that are continuing.
The occupation is facilitated by the capitol building’s setup. Unlike many state capitols, Madison’s is wide open and available to the public without significant police oversight, allowing for huge crowds to flow in and out; quickly, the whole building had been overtaken by thousands of protesters.
Students of all ages have worried that the Budget Repair Bill would dissuade potential teachers from choosing education as a viable career because of the slashed benefits and wages the bill would include.
University of Wisconsin undergrads banged drums and chanted as they sat down to block the entrance to the state senate, alongside the teaching assistants who lead their class discussions, so state senators could not vote on the bill.
Molly Noble is a graduate student in sociology and project assistant at UW-Madison. The bill, she says, would hurt her tuition remission and health care coverage. “This is political, not economic. It’s an attack on workers and an attack on democracy.”
The sociology department at Madison is long known as one of the top-ranked in the country; Noble worries about Walker’s bill diminishing the department’s status: “If this goes through, it could really threaten the strength of our department.”
Sitting cross-legged near her on the floor was Martha Fischhoff, a graduate student in gender and women’s studies at Madison. She was on the verge of yelling as she struggled not to be drowned out by the drums and chanting around her.
“I was hoping to stay in Madison and teach—I love Wisconsin,” she says. “But this bill would make it untenable for me to stay. I would not stay here to teach if this bill passes.”
Others expressed similar anxiety about being forced to move from a state they loved. At the ongoing public hearing on the bill Thursday evening, Jessica Weber, an education major at UW-Platville, noted that the bill did not make her reconsider becoming a teacher, but says it still “felt like slap in the face.”
This was a refrain repeated several times on Thursday by young people: Their futures are put in serious jeopardy by the Budget Repair Bill, so they have to respond.
And no one responded more quickly and forcefully than the teachers’ assistants.
“We organized ourselves literally minute-to-minute,” said Spitzberg of the TAA.
It was not difficult to believe him. Earlier in the night, the room had been packed with over 30 people and what seemed like twice as many backpacks. The central tables were stacked high with pizza boxes and used plastic cups; the outer tables were occupied by grad students on their laptops. Every few minutes, a member would burst in excitedly, making an announcement or requesting a volunteer for a task with urgency. Late in the night, after a two-hour member meeting, the TAA voted to extend their “teach-out” three more days—there would be no classes at the university, although some chose to hold class at the capitol. Unoccupied TAs called others not in the building, trying to persuade them to cancel their classes.
Spitzberg stressed that the bill galvanized the group into organizing like never before. “This is totally, completely unprecedented,” he says.
They helped organize a UW undergraduate walkout, and another was planned for 11 a.m. Friday. “We’re going to make the campus as empty as possible,” Spitzberg says.
His talk of organizing undergraduates and fellow graduate students and the power they held begged a question—where was the apathy typically associated with young people today? Spitzberg became animated.
“Young people understand what is at stake here: Collective bargaining rights, students rights—these are the things this bill wants to destroy,” he said. “There are high schoolers and middle schoolers here. And it’s not just like, ooh! Sleepover in the capitol! No. They’re genuinely interested in fighting back against this extremist agenda the governor is pushing. They are anything but apathetic. In the hearings, I’ve heard kids say that they have been awakened to what politics are about, to what democracy looks like—’I’m a part of it. And I’m speechless that my own voice is so instrumental here.’”
The immediate wake of Walker’s bill’s passage would be devastating for Wisconsin’s public sector workers, an obvious fact that has pushed those workers to the state capitol this week. But the widespread participation of high school and university students shows they also have a serious stake in Madison’s protests.
If public sector union workers—indeed, all workers—are to gain dignified work and lives, it will take a mass cross-generational mobilization that engages students and workers of all ages and industries. In other words, it will take the kind of movement in full bloom in Madison right now.
This post first appeared on the site of Campus Progress, a project of the Center for American Progress.