Police Shut Down WI Capitol as Walker Proposes Massive Upward Redistribution of State’s Wealth
UPDATE from Fight Back! News: Occupation continued March 2--60 pople inside as 1,000 marched downtown; Walker takes injunction opening building to mean "one-to-one swap"; large protests scheduled today March 3.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker unveiled billions of dollars worth of cuts to social programs and further tax cuts to the rich today in front of a small crowd of supportive citizens and lawmakers. In Walker’s budget proposal, schools would be prohibited from raising taxes to make up for the $900 million loss of state funding. Medicaid users will pay higher co-pays and deductibles to cover $500 million in cuts to the federal health care program for low-income people. Walker’s proposal will eliminate the rules that allow non-violent prisoners to earn time off of their sentences through good behavior, as well as in-state tuition for children of undocumented immigrants. Cities and counties will lose, respectively, $60 million and $34 million in state funding. Citizens in the audience were both admiring and respectful.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of demonstrators flooded the capitol lawn, banging on noisemakers and shouting “Recall Walker!” and “Kill the Bill!” Protestors swarmed the capitol entrance on State Street demanding access to their locked capitol building during the budget address. Next, they marched towards the King St. entrance in order to find the media crews who, protest leaders said, were busy filming a much smaller demonstration. Demonstrators have been demanding entrance to the building ever since 4 p.m. on Sunday when the police first locked the doors. But according to the state’s Department of Administration (DOA) the capitol is open to the public.
That is what the DOA argued on Tuesday in the Dane County Courthouse, within earshot of the concurrent mass demonstration. The court gathered Tuesday afternoon to hear testimony concerning a Petition for Temporary Restraining Order and Temporary Injunction filed by AFSCME Council 24 against the State of Wisconsin. The injunction is a court order calling on the DOA to “reopen the Wisconsin capitol to members of the public during business hours and at times when governmental matters…are being conducted.” The DOA, the defendant, is claiming that the state government is a professional institution, meaning the presence of loud demonstrators seeking redress for grievances was an interruption of their work (rather than a function of it.) Further, the state claimed today that the highly restricted access is in accord with the limits imposed by the law, citing “time, place and manner” restrictions on access to public space. That is why, they say, that even thoug they have not in any way made the building more accessible to the public since the court first issued tthe injunction the DOA is nonetheless acting in accordance with it.
Peggy Lautenschlager, representing the plaintiff AFSCME Council 24,on Tuesday called witnesses to the stand to testify against the validity of the varied and ever-changing justifications for the police lock down, including fire hazard and cleanliness. While a number of witnesses testified to their personal experiences of being denied entry Lautenschlager argued that together these isolated events form a complete picture of calculated state repression.
Allison Ritter testified that she had been told by a commanding officer that only those with “legitimate purposes” may enter freely, as distinguished from those who merely wish to exercise their right to free speech. Those who are able to make an appointment with their state representative, and are able to communicate to them their presence (which police are not facilitating), are allowed to enter. Once inside citizens must be escorted by a staff member at all times. Monday saw a public hearing on the Budget Repair Bill. A long and slow moving line indicated that few people were allowed in to the hearing. Those who testified reported that police escorted them out of the building immediately after having their chance to speak.
As early as Monday evening accounts surfaced that Walker was intending to shuffle Tea Party members into the capitol for his budget address using secret underground tunnels. While Lautenschlager was unable to fully investigate the matter—she is barred from entering the state capitol as a citizen without “legitimate” business—she called forth the following as evidence: that an official request was made to use the tunnel, that the assembly chamber was filled with supporters for the Governors budget address and that very few people were allowed entry through the doorway. Judge John Albert responded that this would constitute “unique and restricted access” to a public space for certain individuals, indicating his sympathy for the plaintiff thus far. Judge Albert will likely decide on the case by Wednesday evening (March 02).
The capitol rotunda has been a vibrant center of protest and organizing for those who oppose Walker’s “Budget Repair Bill,” which would—among other things—strip public sector workers of their right to collectively bargain, expand executive power and allow for the selling of state-owned utilities through no-bid contracts. However, on Sunday evening organizers from the Teachers Assistant Association (TAA) along with a Democratic legislator and union trained “marshals” voluntarily assisted the police in removing protesters from the capitol. Officially in cooperation with the police, these men led demonstrators out of the capitol in part by claiming that victory can only come through peaceful action and cooperation with law enforcement.
It was 3 p.m. on Sunday that police began a slow process of taking control over the capitol building. In part because of vocal support from a number of police officers for the protests and in part because of their hitherto non-interference, their move to crack down was not immediately discerned by all demonstrators. First, police began regulating entrance to the capitol by asking for a line to form. Lines stretched all the way down the lawn out to the street. For every two people who left the building one would be let in. At 4 p.m. the doors were closed while the thousands of protesters inside were asked to leave voluntarily. Everyone expected arrests to follow. The response of protesters was split—hundreds left at that time though hundreds of others refused to do so. No arrests have been made.
While those on the inside debated whether or not to leave the capitol (ostensibly temporarily), on the outside the TAA was on the megaphone standing behind the newly formed police line urging the crowd to accept the loss and be compliant. “We’ve known this was coming for days,” one said. A voice from the crowd responded, “That doesn’t mean that you have to enforce it!” Another voice from the crowd called for “MC Superman,” as the young man with the megaphone is calling himself, to "step down." While there was clearly frustration over the actions of the un-appointed leadership there also was a lot of confusion as well as support.
Even with tens of thousands of protesters gathering regularly there have been only a handful of arrests. And the police presence is decidedly minimal compared to other demonstrations of comparable size. There are no horses and no riot gear, though police officers, state troopers and sheriffs have been called in from around the state. They seem to have replaced the Madison Police Dept., many of whom have expressed support for the protests, in policing the capitol grounds.
A culture of self-policing has emerged amongst protestors. There are two elements of this which have become clear. First, there are regular calls for applause and chants of “thank you” to the police officers who many still argue are “on our side” and are “in a real tough spot.” Second, there is a commitment to being “peaceful.” Peaceful seems here to be synonymous with lawful and compliant. Thus the use of non-violent civil disobedience is rarely discussed. The TAA and the marshals are quick to respond to the outbreak of countervailing ideas. Moreso, many demonstrators fear that any act of aggression will cause them to lose favor with the public, particularly because of the negative spin coming from major media outlets such as Fox News.
Meanwhile, many of those who support civil disobedience are busy practicing it inside the capitol. This was one consequence of the way in which the police took control of the capitol—they now are containing inside many of the most dedicated and experienced activists. Those activists are receiving only the food (mostly pizza) that supporters can bring in with them during sanctioned meetings with their representatives. There are some accounts that struggles over the control of the building have continued inside, with protesters re-taking a portion of the ground floor. They are asking for donations of socks, spray on deodorant, boxer shorts of all sizes and orange juice. Some have declared a hunger strike and are only drinking juice.
With non-violent direct action out of the question as a means to re-take the capitol, for now the only hope for reopening the building lies in the court’s decision.
All in all, the mood is still defiant and hopeful while marches and demonstrations are constant. Governor Walker’s resolve is matched by that of the protesters who remain energetic even after one half month of struggle. However, Walker's budget proposal demands that Wisconsinites build an even stronger and much broader movement.