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 reporter for Bloomberg Politics

"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.

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.

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.

"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.

"We've been here 10 days and I'm starting to get used to the marble floor," she says. "It actually helps that we're more exhausted." What about the constant noise? "It's fine. It's like living in a dorm."

1:01 a.m.: The Assembly debate dragged on for hours after Republicans started to force the vote—by now, it's been going on for more than 60 hours, and Republicans are fed up.

"Everything that's being said has been said three or four times already," said Speaker Pro Tem Bill Kramer. "Until seven minutes ago, no one was listening. Except me." Minutes later, Kramer gavels in a quick vote. Democrats explode, furious not just at the result but at the fact that the vote lasted less than 15 seconds.

They start to file out of the chamber, and one by one they go to a railing and wave to the hundreds of people crammed onto the floor below. Rep. Leon Young tosses his orange T-shirt into the crowd; a protester grabs it as if Eddie Van Halen has tossed a guitar pick.

"This is a travesty!" says Rep. Bill Hulsey, who'd yelled, "Shame" at Republicans louder than almost anyone. "What do I want to do next? I don't even want to say." He joins his colleagues in a caucus meeting.

1:20 a.m.: In the first-floor atrium, Rep. Cory Mason joins the Cuddle Puddle, who have a megaphone at the ready, and thanks the protesters. "I've never been so glad that we have two chambers," he says. In the other chamber, of course, striking Senate Democrats are not present for a vote, so the bill is stuck.

The megaphone is passed to Damon Terrell, CJ's brother. He's wearing a cut-off shirt that displays a fresh tattoo, a fist in the shape of Wisconsin with "SOLIDARITY" written alongside. "For the first time in my life," he says, "I know I am doing what I was born to do."

Reporters try to talk to Terrell, but he gives them a little information before holding up. "I really want to be in the moment now," he says. He returns to the circle for hugs.

2:14 a.m.: Every night there's a rumor that the Capitol will be cleared. It's not being cleared tonight. Some protesters are sitting up straight; some seem to have slept through the apocalypse.

"How can you sleep?" says Mary McDonald, a representative of AFT Healthcare in Washington. "It's so dramatic! It's so upsetting! How can these people possibly work together now, you know? There have been so many double-crosses."

7:45 a.m.: The doors to the Capitol are about to open again, and before they do I take a quick survey of the feeding/sleeping areas. Some of the sleepers, roused, are doing TV interviews through heavy eyelids. The food has been replenished, with stacks of bagels and cream cheese in the breakfast nook. (There's no fresh coffee just yet.) There are rumors, as there are every day, that the Capitol will be closed to protesters, but there's a massive rally planned for Saturday. Tom Bird, the first of the Cuddle Puddle to wake up, stops me and speaks happily about the sleep he managed to get, after Democratic staffers left and handed him and other protesters the cold remainders of their Ian's Pizza.

"I had to sleep," he says, "because this is going to be a big weekend."

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