On December 17th 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the country of Tunisia town to protest police harassment, abuse, and the confiscation of his vegetable cart. Weeks later Bouazizi died of his burns, which added momentum to growing protests against unemployment and repression. After days of clashes, in which dozens were killed, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia. Since then revolt has spread to Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Sudan, and now the Egyptian dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak is struggling for survival (even the Chinese government is censoring the word “Egypt” from the local Internet.)
On January 25th 2011, thousands of protesters streamed into the streets of Cairo, Egypt demanding an early retirement for Mubarak and at least two men set themselves on fire, echoing Bouazizi’s Dec. 17 protest in Tunisia. While the movement in Egypt gained momentum, tens of thousands of protesters in Yemen marched on the capital against President Saleh. and more than 10,000 protesters in Algeria dispersed peacefully in the northern town of Bejaia after shouting “Tunisia-inspired slogans.” On February 1st Mubarak announced that he will not seek another term as president, but will stay on until elections are held, which did not satisfy the masses. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians poured into the streets of Cairo demanding an immediate end to Mubarak’s 30-year reign.
A positive aspect of this struggle was the self-organization of the Egyptian protesters. Many demonstrations were started on Facebook and publicized by phone and word of mouth. After initial clashes with police (where smoke grenades reading “Made in the USA” were launched at demonstrators), protesters adjusted their tactics and taught each other how to outsmart the cops. When the Egyptian government disabled the Internet, neighbors went door-to-door quietly at night to invite everyone to join. On the streets people have shared food and medicine widely with other protesters in need and some have come prepared with medical supplies to tend to the injuries of strangers. Everyone describes powerful solidarity among the protesters and for many each new day brought new friends.
Both in Tunisia and Egypt, workers in factories, newspapers and other
workplaces kicked out their bosses and CEOs and replaced them with self-management by worker committees or in some cases by new, more popular bosses. Almost overnight there arose numerous neighborhood committees to guard against government-sanctioned thugs and looters. Similar committees have taken to cleaning and otherwise running their communities. One tweet from Egypt said: “I don’t know why we have police in the 1st place. We seem to be taking good care of each other, organizing traffic, cleaning streets.”
Finally on February 11th, it was announced that Mubarak had stepped down as president of Egypt, crowds began erupting in cheers…
We all know that news travels fast, and uprisings inspire each other across continents. What began (on the same day Mubarak stepped down) as an attempt
by Wisconsin Republican governor Scott Walker to implement sweeping austerity measures and take away the ability of unions to collectively bargain, has created a massive grassroots working class response. Many teachers first responded to the news that their jobs might be lost by launching wildcat strikes through the calling in of sick days. Students, not to be out done by their teachers, walked out of their schools, and in some instances, launched brief occupations. Many have also been inspired by the unrest in the Middle East. If people can get their leaders removed there, what is stopping us from doing it here? The protesters out on the Madison streets watched the millions of Egyptians who successfully took down their dictator. Many of them are now carrying signs calling Scott Walker “the Mubarak of the Midwest.” And while the American media loves the union workers that toppled a dictator in Egypt, they have shown little sympathy for the workers that will be silenced right here in the heartland.
On February 14th about 1,000 UW-Madison students marched and the next day 13,000 protesters attended a noon rally at the Capitol. Also, 800 East High School students marched to the Capitol and a sleep-in begins as those waiting to testify to legislators start to camp out. On February 16th an estimated 20,000 protesters attend the protests, Madison schools were closed, as more than half of teachers call in sick. The next day all 14 Senate Democrats fled across the state line to Illinois, blocking a Senate vote while rallies grew to an estimated 25,000 protesters. On February 18th it went up to 40,000 people and the day after that it was up to 68,000. (Pro-Walker protesters are variously estimated at only 3,000).
On February 23rd audio is released of a prank phone call between Governor Walker and a man he thought was billionaire campaign contributor David Koch, during which Walker says he “thought about” planting troublemakers among the protesters at the Capitol and outlines plans to trick Senate Democrats into returning to the state. Two days later, just after 1am, Assembly Republicans abruptly call a vote on the budget repair bill and pass it before many Democrats could cast votes, ending the longest continuous Assembly session in state history. Angry shouts of “Shame!” erupted from onlookers as the Republicans quietly filed out of the chamber.
The fight in Madison goes to heart of the “culture war” and especially the “class war” in the US, who gives billions to the rich criminals on Wall Street while trying to chip away at worker solidarity that it has taken generations to build up. When unions accepted the cut-back in exchange for the chance to keep their
collective bargaining rights, Walker refused, showing that the real agenda all along was to weaken the working class, not save money. In fact, the state government isn’t actually broke. The state legislature’s fiscal bureau estimated the state would end the year with a $121 million balance. Walker claims there is a $137 million deficit, but it is not because of an increase in worker wages or benefits, it is because Walker and his allies pushed through $140 million in new spending for corporate and special-interest groups in January. Even if there was a deficit, blame Wall Street, not the workers. The economy isn’t crumbling because state workers in Madison have decent pensions. It’s because Wall Street bankers stole our money, Bush and now Obama have us in two trillion-dollar wars, and states like Wisconsin keep spending more on prisons than schools. What do the rich pay? According to the Wisconsin Department of Revenue, corporate tax income has fallen by half since 1981 and over two-thirds of Wisconsin corporations pay zero taxes.