MADISON, WI (FDL) – The Capitol Rotunda is subdued this morning, hours after the Wisconsin State Assembly approved the budget repair bill that included the stripping of collective bargaining rights for public employees. I spoke to several witnesses who were there at 1 in the morning when the Assembly Republicans moved the bill forward, and they described the scene as chaotic.
“The reaction in the Assembly hall and the gallery was explosive,” said Chris, a college teacher from Watertown, WI. “Out in the Rotunda, it was a short and sustained reaction.” Evan, a high school student from Madison, described the mood as a little angry, but when the Assembly Democrats came out onto the bridge and waved to the protesters, the mood brightened. They spoke to the crowd and inspired them to keep up the fight.
The passage of the Assembly version of the bill does not really move it any closer to final passage. As long as the Senate Democrats remain out of the state, nothing can move forward. But the passage does accomplish a couple things. First, as Donna Magdalena, a graphic artist from Madison, told me, “They didn’t want people to keep hearing what the Democrats were bringing up.” Assembly Democrats used the elongated session, the longest continuous debate on a bill in the history of the state by some accounts, to educate the public about the contents of the legislation. Now they won’t have the same platform on the Assembly floor.
But the bigger reason to get the bill passed in the Assembly is to shut down the Capitol. Under a bill passed yesterday, this could happen as soon as 6pm Saturday night. When we first heard about this, the assumption was that the legislation would allow lawmakers to close access to offices. And as the protest has worn on, while more and more of the access to the Capitol has been cordoned off with yellow tape, the common areas have remained open. The initial assumption was that this would stay the same, with legislative offices and hearing rooms closed but common areas still accessible.
As Dave Weigel explains, protesters are allowed in the building overnight because there is an ongoing public hearing on the budget repair bill that has been taking place since last week. But the bill that was passed would actually allow the legislature to shut down the hearing and gradually shut down the Capitol. Without an ongoing public hearing and without the legislature in session, there is no reason to keep the building open.
The latest is that they will restrict access starting at 4:00 today.
Police in the Wisconsin state Capitol plan to begin removing air mattresses and other various other items used by protesters who’ve been camping out for more than a week on Friday afternoon.
At 4 p.m. Friday, police will begin restricting access to the Capitol, according to a flier circulated by police.
But the flier says “Friday sleeping area restrictions” include no sleeping on the second, third and fourth floors, meaning protesters may still be allowed to camp out on the ground floor of the building.
Cullen Werwie, a spokesman for Gov. Scott Walker, said, “The instructions regarding access to the Capitol were made by law enforcement officials to ensure the safety and public health of all individuals.”
The flier says items that will be removed beginning at 4 p.m. include: mattresses, tables in hallways, folding chairs, large boxes, large delivery storage, mattresses, coolers, massage chairs, extension cords, crock pots and other cooking appliances.
The Assembly’s passage got them out of session and paved the way for this ejection.
There’s definitely an increased police presence in the Capitol today. “They’re being more strict,” said Josh, a high school student. “Each day, there’s more and more yellow tape,” added Chris, the schoolteacher. “They are trying to confine us and marginalize us right out the door… this is concerning to many of us, it takes the wind out of our sails.”
The Capitol has become its own ecosystem – an organizing hub as much as a common space for protest. Restricting access and ejecting the crowd will have the effect of dispersing the protest. “The most telling thing in that phone call to Koch,” Chris said, “was when Governor Walker said he was counting on media attention to die down and the protests to stop. That’s our biggest fear, that people will stop paying attention. I’m looking for guidance from our leadership on how to move forward,” he concluded, gesturing to his union rep, who had just walked into the hall.
Most of those surveyed said they would probably leave if forced by police, although at least some protesters would probably get deliberately arrested in an act of civil disobedience. Others didn’t feel this would stop the protests overall. “They seem to have some idea that we’ll go away, they’re creating their own reality,” said Donna, the non-union graphic artist who just spent her first night in the Capitol. “This will just create more problems and more attention.” Donna, who came to the Capitol because she sees the bill as an attack on civil rights and part of a corporate takeover of the state, said that Gov. Walker had ignited an anger that has been building for many years. “I will be in the streets. I’m not giving up. We will take this to Wall Street.”
The protests don’t really have a rigid leadership structure, but some organizers are trying to make this, perhaps the last day in the Capitol, a coalition-building day. There is a town hall meeting scheduled in the ground floor of the Rotunda at 8:00 tonight to strategize. “We need a continuity,” Chris said. “We need a plan to make it happen.”
One sign revealed that there may be some difficulty getting all the protesters out of the Capitol. It read, “United We Stay.”