Ethics of Care in the Occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol
Photo: Melody HoffmanOne afternoon, an extraordinary moment of solidarity unfolded in front of me. I stood on the second floor marble steps and watched union members from Los Angeles stream through the Capitol. Union members had driven from Los Angeles to support us here in the Midwest. As they hollered and marched past me I could not contain my emotions. And as I cried and told as many of these amazing people as I could ‘thank you,’ they all took a moment to hug me. That same afternoon I walked the Capitol and took pictures of all the spaces of care that filled the giant building. These sorts of images are not easy to come by in the coverage of this historical moment. The romantic images of a brimming rotunda and smart/funny/sad/ironic protest signs left these small moments of the occupation invisible. These images work to argue that taking care of each other in the Capitol was a primary ethical concern that never faltered. We turned a public space into one that mimics a sustaining private home. You did not have to leave the Capitol for anything. Not food, not energy, not medicine, not diapers…nothing. Signs of Protest:The protest signs that people posted with blue painters tape (a negotiated-over type of tape that would not damage the walls) were silently expected to remain on the walls. Cleaning crews (both state-paid and demonstrator-volunteers) never removed any sign from the wall, until just two weeks ago. Signs became sacred historical documents for those few weeks.
Family Space: I watched this family space be created in a matter of days. Parents wanted a space for nursing, playing, and resting. The hallway leads to a wing of Democrats' offices-- offices in which many demonstrators slept each night. Family space-specific food and material donations poured in within a day. Photos were not allowed to be taken in the space and I spent an afternoon keeping an eye on the space so the parents could be fully with their children. Trash and Clean Up: The demonstrators kept the Capitol very clean. There was an area to pick up rubber gloves and trash bags so anyone could walk around and pick up trash (although no one threw trash anywhere but the trash cans). All we had to do was leave the bags by an existing trash can and the state workers who clean the Capitol would retrieve them.
Safe Food: Demonstrators posted information on how to keep donated food up to health code safety standards. Sanitizing your hands was a request repeated over and over near food tables. No one from the Health Department suggested the sanitation; it was a rule crafted by demonstrators watching out for each other.
Healthy Food: Supporters locally and globally called Madison area businesses asking to donate food to the Capitol demonstrators. Bagels, soup, fruits, vegetables, rice dishes, coffee, tea, and milk were just some of the food I ate and helped distribute during my stay. I also spent much of my union organizer wages donating food to the demonstrators when I was not there. It is not an overstatement to say one could eat fully and healthfully in the Capitol for two weeks.
Health and Wellness: The medic station equipped with a massage chair, first-aid material, and basic medicines was another photo-free zone. A giant box of toiletries appeared one day near the station withdeodorant, toothpaste, toothbrushes, menstrual pads, tampons, and soap. In the women’s bathrooms the counters were neatly lined with menstrual pads, tampons, diapers, and wipes. Re-use, Recycle: People turned thousands of pizza boxes into protest signs, which lined the lower level of the Capitol building. In honor of the ethics of care that I experienced and shared with my fellow workers of Wisconsin this past month, thank you for reading and learning about the time I spent in Madison. Your support has been felt here for a long time. Solidarity, forever. Melody is a PhD student at the University of Minnesota where she studies Feminist Media Studies. She is a long time union worker and organizer in the graduate student worker sector. Her scholarly and in-the-streets activism also extends to bicyclist rights, sex worker advocacy, and labor rights issues in working class jobs. She sporadically posts about women and bikes and contemporary feminist issues at grpp2010.blogspot.com.
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