By Mary Croy, Dan Fitch, Greg Geboski and Dayna Long
The last twelve months have been some of the most momentous of our lives. The COVID-19 crisis was a catalyst, sharpening existing contradictions in society and making the harsh conditions of life under capitalism in the United States even more unbearable. After police in Minneapolis murdered George Floyd at the end of May, people reached a breaking point. Protests erupted around the country, and the movement for Black lives and Black liberation continued to shape political expression in Madison and elsewhere for much of the rest of the year.
In Madison alone, too much has taken place to include everything in any succinct summary. But reflection and assessment are critical practices for socialists and so the Red Madison Working Group has attempted a collection of local political moments that matter – the wins, losses, and turning points that tell us something about the strength of our movements and the working class. This list is not comprehensive. We’re sure to miss a lot. But we hope it provides a useful starting point for reflection in these early weeks of the new year. We can’t look forward with any clarity without also looking back.
2/29/2020: F35s at Truax. Hundreds protested against basing the wasteful, noisy, and dangerous F-35 combat aircraft at Truax Field on the North side of Madison. Despite an impressive grassroots campaign and neighborhood organizing to oppose the F-35s, the military chose Madison to be the newest base for the monstrosities just a few days later. Noise pollution is only the most noticeable form of environmental harm caused by these war machines. Tests have shown that the activities of the Wisconsin Air National Guard have already led to high levels of PFAS chemicals in groundwater samples, as well as in Starkweather Creek and Lake Monona. Construction to prepare for the F-35s might disrupt a highly contaminated site and make the spread of PFAS even worse.
3/12/2020: IWW General Defense Committee begins its mutual aid project, later renamed Dane County Community Defense, working from a model of solidarity, not charity. The group provided families throughout Dane County with food, toiletries, cleaning supplies, and financial support following the wave of job and income losses as a result of the COVID-19 shutdown that was just beginning. The group continued its work through June, providing over $75,000 in direct aid and feeding nearly 4,000 people. Other mutual aid projects that began at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic continue, including the COVID19 Mutual Aid Madison Facebook group, a moderated, non-judgemental space for solidarity and resource sharing.
3/15/2020: Schools close due to COVID-19. Public Health Madison & Dane County closed all of the schools in Dane County to prevent the spread of COVID-19. By this point in the month, it was clear that a massive, nation-wide shutdown was underway, though no one anticipated how long the pandemic would continue to ravage the nation or how badly the US Government would fail the public in managing the crisis.
3/18/20202020: Willy Street union keeps fighting. The overwhelming victory by Willy Street Co-op workers in September 2019 bore fruit in 2020. Their new union, United Electrical Workers (UE) Local 1186, had to fight hard, but won its first contract in March—only to be slammed by the COVID pandemic, which disproportionately hurts grocery workers. The union won hazard pay and some of the best in-store safety protections in the area, although not without a tough fight with Willy Street management. We spoke with Angelica Engel, member of DSA and UE Local 1186, about being an essential worker during the early days of the global pandemic.
4/7/2020: Risking our lives to vote. The Republican-controlled state legislature, backed the conservative-stacked Wisconsin State Supreme Court, refuses Governor Evers’ request that Wisconsin’s spring elections be rescheduled for June and also fights efforts to allow election officials to accept absentee ballots received after election day. As a result, voters throughout the state were forced to line up to vote in-person in the early days of a global pandemic. This outcome was especially terrible in Milwaukee, where there were only five polling places for almost 600,000 people. Milwaukee voter Mia Noel shared her experience with Wisconsin’s racist, flawed democracy in an interview.
4/8/2020: Sanders presidential run comes to an end. The presidential election campaign of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the only candidate endorsed by DSA, brought the promise of socialism to millions. Locally, Wisconsin For Bernie (W4B) had already started organizing for Sanders as early as 2019, long before the official campaign came to the state. DSA was part of a coalition with W4B and others that campaigned for Sanders before COVID brought efforts to a premature end. After the socialist Sanders got a stunning win in Nevada, however, the Democratic Party power structure coalesced around former Vice President Joe Biden as the preferred candidate. This was capped off by the grotesque spectacle of the April 7 Wisconsin primary, won by Biden, going forward as the COVID pandemic raged.
The sudden defeat of the Sanders campaign did not lead to a collapse of the activism surrounding his campaign however. In one example, W4B leader, Sanders delegate, and DSA member Laura Valderrama was a lead organizer of a May Day rally for workers in Madison. Later, members of W4B organized with others to defend the November election results.
4/14/2020: UW Student, leading climate activist, and DSA member Max Prestigiacomo was elected to represent District 8 on Madison’s Common Council. At 18, Prestigiacomo is one of the youngest elected officials in the country. During the summer’s anti-racist uprising following the police murder of George Floyd, Prestigiacomo played a major role in giving movement demands a voice on the Common Council. Prestigiacomo was a leader in the fight to end the mayor’s curfew, and introduced legislation to curb police use of non-lethal projectiles, to decriminalize marijuana, and to ban the city’s use of facial recognition technology.
5/24/2020: Forward Into Hell. Public Health Madison & Dane County’s reopening plan went into effect, allowing businesses that had been closed since mid-March to reopen with limited capacity and no mask ordinance. While elected officials on the Dane County Board and the Madison Common Council were not given the opportunity to review the plan before it was announced to the public, the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce did get early access and the opportunity to weigh in. This ominous start set the stage for a midsummer COVID-19 spike. It was also an early sign of PHM&DC’s ongoing reluctance to put public health ahead of private interests and profit-making.
5/30/2020: George Floyd’s murder and the subsquent protests in Minneapolis and cities around the country finally reach Madison. Thousands took to the streets for a protest against police brutality and white supremacy led by Freedom Inc, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, and Urban Triage. After the official protest ended, hundreds of protesters still gathered on Capitol Square and the protest took a more militant turn. Witnesses recall protesters surrounding a police vehicle, then forcing the police officers who remained at the scene to retreat down Hamilton into the Public Safety building.
Next, the protesters headed to State Street where the much maligned window breaking and looting took place. A comrade who was present at the time said the scene brought to mind Lenin’s observation that a revolution is a “festival of the oppressed,” – at least until the police arrived and unleashed a wave of tear gas, pepper spray, and sound cannons at protesters. Police were further empowered to criminalize and brutalize protesters when Mayor Rhodes-Conway imposed a curfew shortly after the protest reached State street. DSA members who were present shared their impressions of that first evening. The pattern of evening protests followed by severe police repression held for the next few days until the Common Council struck down the curfew under immense pressure from the community. On Wednesday, June 3, activists held a powerful community gathering on Capitol Square with food and music and remembrance.
6/10/2020: Mayor’s private apology to cops leaks. The Mayor recorded a sympathetic video message for Madison police, saying “It must be absolutely infuriating to stand in a heavy gear outside while listening to people constantly insult your chosen profession,” and “It must be frightening to stand and have rocks and other things thrown at you, and to be in harm’s way constantly.” The password-protected video was released to police privately but it didn’t take long for everyone to become aware of the Mayor’s duplicitous bullshit. Backlash from all sides ensued.
6/23/2020 Yeshua Musa Arrested. Yeshua, a 28-year-old Black Lives Matter protest leader, was arrested by the police in what many saw as a targeted attack on an effective Black activist. His arrest sparked outrage and other organizers called supporters to the Dane County Jail to protest, later leading a march that lasted for hours and snaked through the isthmus. It ended in the early hours on June 24 with protesters removing the Forward statue and a statue of Colonel Hans Christian Heg on Capitol Square, prompting tone deaf hand-wringing from liberals and conservatives alike over “good” monuments.
In some ways, that night and Musa’s arrest marked the opening of the legal backlash against the protests. In the days after Musa was arrested, several other young Black men who were involved with and leading the protest movement in Madison were arrested. Some now face serious federal charges that could see them spend decades in prison. Later, police began circulating pictures of protesters taken from security footage, leading to many more arrests for looting on the night of the first protest in Madison, as well as subsequent protest activity.
6/29/2020: No more cops in schools. Freedom Inc’s Freedom Youth Squad has been leading the charge to have “school resource officers” removed from Madison schools for years. This summer’s upsurge in protest against white supremacy and police brutality helped to push the struggle over the top. Madison Metropolitan School District’s School Board voted to end their contract with the Madison Police Department, marking the most significant movement victory of the year.
7/8/2020: Doyle Resolution is on the table. Dane County Board Supervisor Elizabeth Doyle announced that she would introduce legislation to halt the Dane County Jail consolidation project, which will cost the county hundreds of millions of dollars and expand Dane County’s capacity to incarcerate its residents. The jail population was dramatically reduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, demonstrating that it’s possible to incarcerate fewer people and calling into question the need for a new, larger facility. Supervisor Doyle’s resolution was met with an outpouring of community support, as well as support from Supervisors who have been opponents of the jail project for years, like Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner. Unfortunately their moral clarity and fortitude is not matched by many of their colleagues. Other Supervisors opted to thwart democracy by allowing the resolution to languish in committee, declining to even take a vote on legislation that garnered more public comment than any other matter the board discussed this year.
8/5/2020: UW unions fight COVID and their bosses. All University of Wisconsin unions joined together and formed the UW-Madison University Labor Council to protect the health and safety of their members under COVID. The Council challenged the university administration’s reckless and stupid “smart” restart plan. Too bad for the people of Wisconsin, the bosses didn’t listen to the workers.
8/11/2020 Nada Elmikashfi’s campaign for a State Senate seat comes to an end. Elmikashfi finished second in the crowded primary, her first run for office. Her grassroots campaign garnered over 13,000 votes, 26% of the overall total. Elmikashfi, a DSA member, connected with voters in the 26th district by advocating for affordable housing, racial justice, and an agenda which stressed working class interests. Although she lost to a well-heeled corporate candidate, Elmikashfi established that she’s a force to be taken seriously and helped to show the continued growth of working class power.
8/13/2020: Epic workers win. Unprecedented outcry and worker organizing forced tech giant Epic Systems to abandon its plans to force workers to return to its Verona campus in the middle of a pandemic. In spite of the company’s notorious hostility towards worker organizing, Epic workers risked their jobs to speak to the press about the company’s dangerous plans, with some even leaking audio recordings of internal meetings to national news outlets. Workers affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World rallied public support, while other workers began organizing with International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) Local 565.
In related news, Epic CEO Judy Faulkner added $1.3 billion to her net worth since the start of the pandemic.
8/23/2020: Jacob Blake is shot by Kenosha police. Wisconsin became the center of the world’s attention when, in the middle of protests still raging over the police murder of George Floyd, Kenosha cop Rusten Sheskey shot Black Kenosha resident Jacob Blake seven times in the back, leaving Blake paralyzed. Then, two days later, Kyle Rittenhouse was driven in from Illinois by his mother, picked up a gun, and shot three protesters who were supporting Blake, killing two. Holding his weapon, Rittenhouse walked right past local police and became a hero to the Right. Blake’s family, many of them decades-long local civil rights activists, were central to organizing a march and rally less than a week after Jacob’s shooting, and their organizing continues. Many in Madison DSA have attended the protests. A charging decision on the cop shooting can happen any time, and is expected in early January.
9/2/2020: Reckless Restart. Days after beginning the Fall 2020 semester in person, administrators at University of Wisconsin-Madison were forced to impose strict lockdowns on dorms following a massive spike of COVID-19 cases among returning students. The result of their “Smart Restart” plan was exactly as faculty and staff predicted: disastrous for campus as well as the broader community, which has experienced higher COVID-19 case counts ever since. University officials attempted to blame student behavior for the surge in infections, but we haven’t forgotten that it was the administration that inflicted this risk on our community.
10/6/2020: Police civilian oversight board is formed following tremendous community pressure and ongoing organizing by Madison’s Community Response Team. Although the powers and purview of the oversight board are still in question, citizen oversight of police is a good step. 2021 will tell us if they have any teeth.
10/19/2020: Sit-in for COVID-19 response in prisons. Petitions all through the year and the Drive to Decarcerate did nothing to force the governor to do something about overpopulated prisons in a pandemic, so EXPO and other groups attempted to raise awareness via a sit-in at the Governor’s mansion. (Spoiler alert: he did not act. So far, the DOC claims 19 deaths, and community spread from prisons certainly helped make Wisconsin’s COVID year worse.)
11/3/2020: Trump threatens election. It feels long ago, but Donald Trump and the Right were making credible threats to block or overturn the November 3 election. In Madison, DSA worked with the Defend Democracy Alliance, a wide coalition of political, community, and labor activists dedicated to defending the vote. The Alliance and allied organizations organized a week of actions, including an immigrant rights rally; a pre-election forum organized by DSA; actions to protect the polls; a post-election party; and on Wednesday November 4, a post-election afternoon rally; a car caravan to the capitol to defend the vote; an evening rally at the capitol sponsored by DSA and others; and an all-day online forum. By Saturday November 7, mainstream media had declared Democrat Joe Biden the victor, but although Trump may be defeated, the threat posed by his unleashing of the Right continues.
12/18/2020: New top cop. Since September 2019 and the sudden resignation of Madison’s temperament-challenged police chief Mike Koval, Madison’s Police and Fire Commission has had to search for a replacement. In the meantime… 2020 happened, a massive civil rights movement rose up here and across the country, and it looked like tear-gassing protesters was a higher priority for MPD than respecting Black lives. As the year ended, the police chief search came under increasing public scrutiny, and it <did not go over well with the community> with the sudden announcement that one of four—or was it five?–final candidates included one man, Christopher Davis, who was involved in an incident where a fellow cop killed a hospitalized Mexican citizen, with the same candidate also an architect of the notorious police crackdown of protesters in Portland, Oregon. Despite overwhelming support in public comments for Ramon Batista, former Chief of Police of Mesa, Arizona, and questions about the openness of the PFC’s search, the Commission chose Shon Barnes, the director of training and professional development for Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability, who at least checked the box “not the Portland killer cop.” The vote was 3-2, Barnes over Batista.
12/18/2020: It’s official: Foxconn is a scam. After promising 13,000 jobs, Foxconn has built a factory 1/20th the size it claimed originally and now says it never promised to build an LCD plant. Hundreds of residents were forced to move into often substandard housing and local governments poured funds into roads and other infrastructure that leads to a dead end.