By Katherine M. Acosta

As OWR and activists around the country gear up to organize resistance to the Trump agenda, many are revisiting the Wisconsin experience in 2011, when Governor Scott Walker began implementing the local version. The Wisconsin Uprising of 2011 is the topic of a new feature-length documentary, Divided We Fall.

Three individuals also featured in our new film – labor activist Charity Schmidt, retired executive director of Madison Teachers, Inc (MTI) John Matthews, and long-time editor of the Progressive, now director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, Matt Rothschild – comment on the policies and strategies we may expect at the national level in a recent article by journalist Dahar Jamail. Expect attacks on labor, education, and public services, they say, but more importantly, they warn about tactics: Divisive rhetoric, a multi-pronged attack that leaves activists reeling, and refusal to conform to established political norms.

Schmidt articulates a theme of our new film when she warns that the usual political processes won’t work. Once the Walker administration took hold, she said, it “became obvious that we couldn’t count on politics as usual in fighting his radical measures, as they were willing to subvert the democratic process to reach desired goals. Government just suddenly worked differently.” Rothschild concurs: “Trump’s going to encourage Republicans in the legislature to bend the rules to get their way… Already, he’s told Mitch McConnell to go nuclear.”

After a euphoric start to the Uprising, I think many of us began to realize were unlikely to win.  Thousands of people showing up with signs, hundreds packing a hearing, and union leaders lobbying legislators – the same tools they’d been using for decades – was not going to defeat the bill.  Significant differences among various groups of stakeholders impaired their ability to develop one in a crisis.

I always say the reason I made Divided We Fall is because the next time we get tens of thousands of people in the streets for weeks at a time, I want to win! Divided We Fall presents a sort of case study of a social movement.  We trace the genesis of the historic capitol occupation and weeks-long protests from the perspective of graduate teaching assistants at the center of the action. But, unlike previous films about the Uprising, we also expose tensions that challenged the movement’s solidarity and likely contributed to our defeat. The goal is to improve our chances of winning next time.

The notion that we lost is offensive to some people, who feel that any criticism sullies the extraordinary efforts of activists who brought such creativity and passion to the resistance, or that we won just by making a statement.  But as Unsettled Times contributor Rahul Mahajan says in our interview with him, a line that unfortunately didn’t make it into the film, “You don’t win by showing up. You win by winning!”

A number of people told me they put off seeing the film because they feared reliving these events would be too painful.  Yet, to a person, after they saw our film they were glad they did. Savage Cinema reviewer Scott Collins is one such individual.  In his recent review of our film, he wrote:

Frankly, I can see the results of that time each and every day… so cinematic reminders of 2011 and the hopes for what could have been are truly unnecessary for me…

That said, Divided We Fall… proved itself to be riveting… Yes, as previously stated, viewing the failures of this specific protest movement nearly brought me to tears, but even so, I could easily tap back into those awesome emotions I felt from 2011 quite easily, as the passion and commitment of so many people truly felt as if it could move mountains.

I invite my fellow OWR activists to join us for a screening of Divided We Fall at the Barrymore Theatre in Madison on Sunday, April 2nd, 11 a.m.  OWR contributors to our film include Unsettled Times editor and UW designated expert on the Uprising, Matt Kearney; Rahul Mahajan, whose “witty and wise” commentary has been praised by Louis Proyect; and Luciano Matheron, whose videography reflects a critical eye reliably focused on significant details that others miss.

Let’s relive the exhilaration and positive energy we generated campaigning together back in 2011, take a sober look at our strengths and weaknesses, and return to organizing invigorated and ready to strategize for victory this time!

Buy tickets for the April 2nd screening here:

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Katherine M. Acosta, the director, producer, and writer of Divided We Fall, holds a PhD in sociology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This is her first film. 


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