Wisconsin protests: How a bunch of pro-union, anti-Republican activists turned the hallways of the state Capitol into a commune.

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Feb. 25 2011 1:02 PM

Das Capitol

How a bunch of pro-union, anti-Republican protesters turned the hallways of the Wisconsin state house into a commune.

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Tea Party on the Capitol lawn
And Sarah Palin, singing along
Laughing all the way to the Pentagon

The song is drowned out at times by the sound of a whistle being blown by Drake Singleton, who's drawing attention to his silk-screened T-shirts commemorating the sit-in.

7:44 p.m.: Dane Spudnik, who works at the Willy Street co-op in town, is manning the anarchist lending library set up next to a stairwell. He doesn't mind if people make off with the "Capitalism is Doomed" posters or "Organizing in the Workplace" guides, but he wants to make sure "nobody sees this copy of The Shock Doctrine and says, oh, I can sell that for $5."

8:27 p.m.: The "War Room" of the Teaching Assistants Association is tucked away on the third floor. The walls are lined with donated coffee, take-out containers, cereal, and charts—lots and lots of charts, to sign up for cleaning duties or to pick up a bright-green vest and act as a marshal. The room itself is about to be closed down on Saturday, a casualty of the Senate's tightened security.

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"That's been our Situation Room," says one graduate student, Ben Stein, a little glumly. "We organized everything from there and I don't think we could have put together any of this without that room. Now that we have, I think we can keep it going, but—that was a nice room!"

Rep. Tammy Baldwin, who represents Madison, is in the Sit Room talking to some students. Other students are grading papers or calling people in for shifts. "I asked them what they needed," says Baldwin, "and they said they needed air mattresses." She points to the inflatable mattresses she just delivered, which will be deployed within hours.

8:43 p.m.: The TAA offers to let me do a round of trash clean-up. After a moment's hesitation, my journalistic instinct takes over: Collecting trash would give me exclusive access to a whole new part of the commune. I grab plastic gloves and a bag, and start downstairs. My ethical qualms vanish when Diane Blum, a secretary at a nearby school, demands to carry the trash bag.

So: The trash pickup, which has kept the Capitol remarkably clean, has two components. The usual Capitol custodians do clean-up on regular hours; the TAA does regular runs around the building, putting their trash bags next to trash cans, per an agreement with the custodial staff. There has been very little damage to the building. Once protesters were warned that taping signs everywhere might damage the property, they switched to blue electrical tape. Once protesters realized that some people were writing unkind things on the Scott-brand toilet paper containers in bathrooms, signs went up warning against this. The scribbling stopped.

9:14 p.m.: Protesters who'll sleep in the Capitol are starting to settle in. The protesters who can't are heading out. George Boulamatis, a corrections officer in Racine, has to leave for a 10:30-6:30 shift, but he listens to an ad hoc string band play folk songs before he goes.

9:50 p.m.: The debate in the Assembly is dragging on. Republicans sit as still and look as alert as they can. Rep. Dave Cullen is on the floor, and he sounds like a tape slowed down on the reel as he hammers Scott Walker over his conversation with a phony "David Koch."

"That's one of our quietest members on the floor right now," says Rep. Chris Danou. "We can keep going for a long time. One of my fellow representatives was telling me he has three hours of labor history to talk about."

A lot of Democratic members are talking about the Kochs; when they do, they often get boisterous cheers from the second floor of the Capitol, where the proceedings are audible.

10:31 p.m.: League of Conservation Voters organizer Matt Dannenberg was listening to the speakers playing the Assembly debate. He's one of the first people to notice that Republicans have made an end-run around the Democratic filibuster and are about to force a vote.

"Get people over here!" he says, swinging his arm toward the Assembly. "This is not democracy! This is not democracy! Come on, we need more people!"

Protesters jump off of their mats and bedrolls and run toward the police tape blocking them from the Assembly. A heavyset trumpet player is allowed to the very front of the crowd; screams and chants get intermingled with smooth jazz. A Democratic staffer emerges from the chamber and waves his arms in a "raise the roof"-type gesture.

11:20 p.m.: The protesters calm down a bit. One sign around the Capitol says, explicitly, "The Assembly Will Pass The Bill, We Need to Focus on the Senate." So there's a sense of resignation at a vote that was always going to go against them. Kristina Nielsen, a UW student wearing her mother's AFT shirt, knits a solidarity bracelet and talks about staying even after the bill passes.

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