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How Obama's Organizing Election Efforts Influenced the Wisconsin Protests

Organizers have created a harmonious community inside the capitol that's part Paris commune and part Midwestern union hall -- and many got their start with Obama.

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As energy decreases in Madison as the strike wears on the key to keeping the pressure on the governor is to keep the capitol occupied. The nonviolent occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol creates the type of tension Martin Luther King Jr. taught us no power could ignore. As King wrote in his famous "Letter from the Birmingham Jail," protest and occupation create the conditions necessary for social change. King wrote: "Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored."

What’s most amazing about the students and workers organizing the occupation of the capitol is that most of them are inspired not by King, but by a different African American leader (who at times has been prone to subtle union bashing): Barack Obama.

Throughout the capitol, it's easy to spot Obama-Biden T-shirts and laptops (including my own) with bumper stickers from the Obama campaign. Many of the youth activists involved in the Wisconsin organizing got their first taste of community organizing in Obama's Organizing for America campaign. Now students are using that confidence for community organizing gained during a presidential campaign for something entirely different – the first ever prolonged occupation of a state capitol.

“I think what the Obama campaign taught us is that we do indeed have power through community organizing to affect change,” says one protest organizer. “Now we are realizing that we don’t need to be organizing for politicians in order to create changes, but that we can create change ourselves through strikes.”

If the Wisconsin protest spreads, it may mark a turning point in our nation’s democracy. People frustrated with a president who failed to deliver change begin to realize they hold a greater power than any political leader – to see democracy as their own, and say what kind of economic laws they want to live by.

Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer who writes for Campaign for America's Future. He previously worked for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE).

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