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Saturday, September 30, 2023
The radicalization of The Cuddle Puddle


The radicalization of The Cuddle Puddle

They began as strangers—a group of highly motivated activists, brought together under a common conviction for workers' rights and social justice in Wisconsin. They met by chance, united by choice and have since been a prominent voice in the state's labor movement.

During their 18-day occupation of the Capitol, they called themselves ""The Cuddle Puddle,"" forming a commune of sleeping bags where they slept and strategized on the marble floors of the rotunda. But it wasn't until after Capitol access restrictions were imposed that they came together as a coalition, under individual political beliefs, to form the Autonomous Solidarity Organization, a nonprofit grassroots organization that has been advocating on behalf of workers' rights ever since.

""We were the drum circle, we were the people who were unaffiliated with any unions or interest groups and we wanted a say—we wanted a voice at the table,"" ASO committee chair C.J. Terrell said.

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The organization, which officially formed March 8, has since been heavily involved in the labor movement. They participated in a bus tour of Wisconsin with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Push Coalition to encourage people to vote in the April 5 election, stopping at eight campuses across the state and other cities in eastern Wisconsin.

""The message we wanted to send is, while it's fun to vote in presidential elections, the elections that really shape our neighborhoods and change our local communities are these local elections,"" Terrell said.

The ASO also helped organize rallies with state Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, and political blogger John Nichols, as well as a candlelight vigil to memorialize Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They have met with U.S. Rep.Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, and notable Yes Men activist Andrew Bichlbaum, as well as countless other prominent figures in the labor movement. They have been canvassing and phone banking, leafleting and protesting—but the dedication doesn't come without costs.

""After the third day of protests and realizing how serious it is and how many people are affected by it, I dropped everything in my entire life,"" ASO member Miles Kristan said. ""I was going to school in Milwaukee and owning my own art gallery in Milwaukee and I left it all behind and moved to Madison.""

Kristan, an avid anti-war activist, said he joined the protests over the budget repair bill on the third day of Capitol occupation to fight for the rights of his mother and step-father—both of whom are teachers.

But Kristan's involvement in Gov. Scott Walker's gubernatorial career didn't start in the rotunda. In March of 2010, he was arrested for attempting to interview former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at an event for Walker, where Bush was speaking on his behalf to raise campaign funds.

""I got about as far as, ‘How are you enjoying the weather here in Wisconsin?' and then I was escorted out by two police,"" Kristan said.

He was arrested again a year later at the Racine County Republican Party's annual Lincoln Day dinner, where he threw a pink cloth at Rep. Robin Voss and shouted, ""Here's your pink slip!""

""Over the past month and a half, I've probably been in 10 times as many news stories and yet I've been so busy at the capitol I don't actually have any time to see the news,"" Kristan said.

ASO has been working closely with union coalitions, such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Teaching Assistants' Association, to transform the energy of the movement, Terrell said.

""We, as a group, want to take the momentum of this movement and use it constructively,"" he said. ""Our collective efforts can move mountains.""

TAA member Charity Schmidt has been collaborating with ASO since the Capitol occupation. She said its commitment to the movement is what makes it successful.

""A lot of them are really young and they have a lot of energy to put into the movement,"" Schmidt said. ""They have a lot to offer as far as their creativity and willingness to really be at this everyday.""

Schmidt is currently a Sociology Ph.D candidate at UW-Madison. She dropped a course this semester to dedicate more time to protesting the collective bargaining legislation.

Bill Fetty, ASO committee chair, has been working with the TAA for a little over a month. He puts in a 40-hour week working for the state, dedicates another 30 hours to his work with ASO and still finds time to coach a youth soccer team.

In fact, most members of ASO have made sacrifices some would not even consider. Sarah Thomas drove across the state to be at the Capitol on the third day of protesting, bringing with her only a few changes of clothes. She hasn't been back since, and recently pulled out of school at UW-Stevens Point for the semester to continue her work with ASO.

Fetty is more concerned with a different kind of sacrifice, however.

""I think the question should be, ‘What do we give up if we don't act?'"" he said.

Terrell said he knows what Wisconsin would give up—people like his brother, Damon. Terrell began his fight at the capitol for his brother, who is in school to become a math teacher.

""My brother is exactly who should be a teacher,"" Terrell said. ""He not only deserves to be a teacher, but the future students of Wisconsin deserve to have a teacher like my brother.""

But Terrell said while his fight started for teachers, he found inspiration in the various people he met at the Capitol, people like Rudy Fox.

""We used to call her our ‘capitol mom,'"" Terrell said of Fox. ""Without BadgerCare, she won't be able to afford her chemo therapy treatments.""

People like Fox inspire ASO to keep the movement alive, Terrell said.

""I hope that it might spawn a generation of people who are increasingly politically aware of the role they play in their own government,"" Fetty said. ""Make no mistake, what we saw for 20-plus days in February and into March was historic.""

Terrell said the most beautiful thing that came out of this movement so far was the overwhelming sense of community formed at the Capitol and how much everyone genuinely cared for one another.

""I have probably 35 people that I would consider my close family right now, that I had no idea existed on the planet 40 days ago,"" Terrell said.

As the organization continues to grow with the movement, their roots are still with The Cuddle Puddle.

""I'm in Madison because I think it's so damn important and I'm happy where I am,"" Kristan said. ""We're together all day, 10 to 15 of us crashing in the same house —we're like one big family.""

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