In March, Wisconsin emerged at the centre of the global struggle against austerity and neo-liberal attacks on workers and trade union rights. Students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee entered into occupation on 2 March, before their eventual eviction last week, becoming the longest student occupation in US history in the process. Here, Aaron tells their story…
Our occupation started on March 2nd 2011, after a 2,000 student and workers walkout/rally held by Students for a Democratic Society as a protest against Governor Scott Walker’s proposed budget cuts to education (basically this involves making our state college system private, causing our tuiton to go up by 26 percent over the next two years), as well as the now infamous SB11 bill which strips all public unions of having collective bargining rights, as well as making them pay more into their health care and pensions.
After the rally, about 100 of us meet up at a location on campus and talked about starting an occupation of our own, as a way of showing support to the occupation of the Wisconsin State Capital building, as well as other occupations across the world. We decided on occupying the theater building on campus, as it was in a good location with high visibility. The first night was a feeling out process, with about 75 of us. When the night ended, about 40 of us remained to sleep there. Over the next several days donations poured in from community members. During our time at theater we attended various protests and boycotts of companies that supported the governor.
After about two weeks, information was coming out about the fact that we were staying in a state owned building, and that the university was facing legal troubles for allowing us to utilize the space. We decided as group that the university and the administration was not the enemy is this fight (this changed near the end of the occupation, more on that later). We were given two options, either end the occupation or continue the occupation in a study room location near the food court in the union. Since the union is funded by student fees, the university was not facing the same issues. After 19 days, we moved all of our belongings to the study room and started our occupation in that area. At this time, our numbers dropped to around 20 of us.
Above: the occupation of the state capitol building
The room was in a much more visible area, seeing as how it was basically a glass room with windows all over the place. We hung up our signs and posters, as well as using a few tables to hand out information to passers-by. During this time, we organized and took part in more protests and rallies. Some of our work included organizing two protests outside of a local Wal-Mart, attending a mayday workers/immigrants march with over 100,000 people present, attending other protests of boycotted companies, etc. We also sat at our table for the better part of most days with our literature regarding why we are having an occupation and local and state wide events about the issues at hand. We had our fair share of critics, but they were highly outnumbered by our supporters. We recieved literally hundereds of emails from all of the world from supporters, as well as support from many student groups on campus, including the teachers union. We definitly had our fair share of issues and many were worried about maintaining the occupation, but we stuck together. Around day 60 or so, we had a meeting to discuss when we were going to end the occupation. We decided as a group to end the occupation once the semester ended. However, this changed on may 2nd.
On Monday 2nd May, two of our members were called into a meeting with the vice chancellor and the person in charge of coordinating reservation for the building ( a person who was extermely helpful and beneficial to us staying in the space). We were initially informed that the meeting was going to be about a legacy piece that the they wanted to put up in the room we were staying at to hallmark our accomplishments and what impact we had on campus. However, when our two members sat down at the meeting they were informed that the occupation was to end in 24hours and that all of our stuff had to be out. Basically, we were lied to by the administration. An administration that we vocally supported for the better part of the occupation. On top of all of this, our chancellor decided not to come out against the cuts to education, further showing his cowardice. Our two members convinced them to give us an extension till Friday 6th May. We all felt betrayed, because they didnt even have the guts to tell all of us. They also, attempted to buy us off by letting us have an event in the union on Monday 9th May to celebrate our accomplishments. That night we had a meeting amongst ourselves and decided we were not going to let them take us out that easily.
We decided we were going to play into what the university wanted us to do, and act is if we were cool with us leaving. In fact we said we were going to have a “de-occupation” party Friday night, and the adminstration agreed to cater the event. However, we made contact with every group we could locally and nationally and asked them to come down to the occupation on Friday. We asked them if any members were willing to form a human chain in front of our door to show support for our cause and to keep the police out for as long as possible. We also decided that the only way we were going to leave is to be dragged out. We hooked up several computers to stream the event (which gained over 10,000 views once the night was over), as well as to document the possiblitly of police violently removing us, when we were not going to resist.
We also made a list of demands. Around 11,30pm on Friday, the ten of us that were willing to get arrested joined together in our room and had one last meeting. At 11.50pm, our supporters joined together in front of our door (about 35 people or so). We chanted and sang as midnight rolled around, and our supports blocked the door as the police arrived. They held strong for about an hour, before leaving the union to watch the events unfold from the outside and capture anything. We sat in a circle, held hands, and waited for the moment to arrive but it never came. Around 2.30 am, the person in charge of reservations drove from his house to the union. He basically told us that as long as the cameras were rolling the cops didn’t want to take us out. This furthered our resolve against the university adminstration for not having a good reason to evict us. We were also given the option of us staging a fake arrest! We immediately shot down that idea as being a slap in the face and a pathetic attempt to get us to leave. We were then informed that an Internet tech. was going to shut off our internet, killing our live streaming video from inside. We were also informed that the cops were not going to drag us out under any circumstance, for fear of looking bad.
We then decided that the only way we were going to leave was in handcuffs. Around 4am, several police officers arrived. We all stood up, held hands, and accepted the inevitable. All ten of us were handcuffed and lead into a hallway, where we were uncuffed, had our information taken, and told we were recieving citations. We all left to building around 4.15 am, to find about 10 of our supporters still there cheering and hugging us as we left. We felt as if this occupation was a win for us, and not a loss. We all shed a few tears and basically are now one big family. We are going to continue our actions however throughout the summer and will not give up, just because of the occupation being over.
Well, sorry for the long post. Our story is a long and complicated one, but what we did was something that not many others would do. We were offically the longest student occupation in United States history at 67 days. We thank you for your drive to maintain for as long as you have. The fight continues, the war is not over. I hope you continue to occupy for as long as physically possible. If there is anymore info you want to know, dont be afraid to ask. Again, stand strong, fight austerity, and occupy forever!