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.

Sleeping in the Wisconsin Capitol. Click image to expand.
Protesters sleeping in the Wisconsin state Capitol

MADISON, Wis.—They call themselves the Cuddle Puddle. They did not come up with the name. There are 10 of them, and they were among the first people to start camping out in the Capitol building.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

"We were all lying down in the sleeping bags," says CJ Terrell, an unofficial spokesman for the cuddlers, "and somebody said, 'They've got a cuddle puddle going on.' And we liked it."

"We didn't know each other before this happened," says Tom Bird, like Terrell a University of Wisconsin grad student.

"Most of us met between 10 and two days ago," says Terrell. He and Bird became Facebook friends only this week.

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You can walk the halls 100 times and not lose your sense of wonder and amazement at the occupation of Wisconsin's state Capitol. It's hard to admit this without it sounding like an endorsement of the pro-labor, anti-Republican stance of the protesters. It's not. It's just that things like thisdon't ever happen in state capitols.

Sure, there have been temporary sit-ins at state houses. There were scattered one-day sit-ins to protest the Iraq war. The graybeard liberals of Madison—this city does not lack for them—remember sit-ins to build pressure for a nuclear weapons ban, and against the Vietnam War. But those aren't the same thing as a 10-day sit-in of a public building, fueled by donations from thankful liberals in other states, peopled by union workers and college students who have built a little commune on marble. They film themselves and upload the videos to YouTube, and they are constantly in front of cameras gathering footage for news or for exposés by the conservative MacIver Institute.

How'd it happen? Because it's legal to sleep in the Capitol if hearings are going on and because the minority Democrats started hearings last week. Since Monday, police have tightened up access to the Capitol. Instead of every door to the building being open, only two are. All four wings had unrestricted access; two do now. Starting on Saturday, Senate offices—some of which had been used to house protesters for sleeping or strategizing—will be closed to anyone who's not a senator.


Thus the little village protesters have built will be disrupted, perhaps even disbanded. It's got to happen sometime. Before it does, I decided to spend a night with the micro-commune. My night happened to coincide with the night that Republicans pushed the Budget Repair Bill through the Assembly, and the striking thing was how little changed after that happened.

6:28 p.m.: Gov. Scott Walker's press conference ends with no real news. The hallway outside his office is lined with letters collected by MoveOn.org from Wisconsinites, pleading with Walker to cave. A sign says the group has 10,000 or so letters.

Down the stairwell, on the second-floor atrium, a crowd has parted for a nine-piece funk fusion group called VO5, which is performing an original song tentatively called "Wisconsin (Cheddar Revolution)." Bandleader Andrew Rohn is still thinking about where to put the parentheses. It's an old song he has repurposed with new protest-specific lyrics.

You think you'll beat us, we're gonna lay down and die?
Screw us and we multiply!

6:55 p.m.: Parts of the second floor have been closed off, but protesters have complete control of the area around Office 116N. On the left: A table for medical supplies, crowded with aspirin, band-aids, feminine hygiene products, and so on. There are no photos allowed, and volunteers are told to give a "press release," hand-written on notebook paper, to anyone who asks questions; it just confirms that the supplies are dropped off by Samaritans who ask what's needed.

On the right: Two tables of foodstuffs, with supplies that dwindle and change quickly. At the moment, they include a Tupperware container of chocolate chip cookies, a tub of peanut butter that a volunteer describes as "various peanut butters working together in solidarity for the cause of deliciousness," regular bread and gluten-free bread, tart candies, and piles of bagels. The food is paid for by donations; volunteers buy it and serve it, as well as remind people to use the hand sanitizer nearby liberally.

In the center: a "family area." It's a safe space with no cameras allowed, where children frolic, play with communal toys, or rest on yoga mats. I'm bonked in the head painlessly by a ball tossed by a child being watched by Trina Clemente. "I'm a student right now," she says, "because there are no jobs."

7:23 p.m.: Ryan Henry, a construction worker from Baltimore, stands in a first-floor hallway singing original songs with a kind of Bob Dylan or Fred Neil lilt.