Wisconsin Protesters Try to Hold Capitol

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Feb. 28 2011 10:28 AM

Wisconsin Protesters Try to Hold Capitol

I've left Wisconsin, but FDL's David Dayen has been on the ground filing updates. Last night was supposed to see the expulsion of protesters from the entire Capitol. They weren't expelled.

The protesters were organized. They were getting nonviolence training. They were scrawling the phone numbers of lawyers on their arms. They were getting support from Democratic members of the state Assembly, who were on hand and planned to stay with them as long as it took. "This is civil disobedience at its finest," said one, wearing the orange "Assembly Democrats" shirt that has been their trademark since this started two weeks ago.

The Dane County sheriff said shortly after 4:00 that he saw no reason for any protesters to be ejected for public safety or public health reasons. In the 14 days since the protesters held the Capitol, there have been ZERO arrests due to their conduct. Local police and firefighters had been uniting with the protesters. They were on hand and possibly ready to get arrested as well. I saw a firefighter from Madison, in full uniform, at the scene.

About 40 minutes in, a spokeswoman for the Capitol Police told the press they would not be removing anyone from the building, and that they were working with the organizers to arrive at a solution. Finally, a couple hours later, it came down: the protesters would be able to stay the night .

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I attended one nonviolence training session, put on in part by the Grassroots Leadership College. (As I wrote repeatedly last week, the sheer number of lefty organizations in Madison make it clear that this was the wrong place to start a frontal assault on union power.) It was short -- the lessons were to write a phone number on your arm (because your cell phone will be taken if you're arrested), to have a "support group" in on your plan, and to make no resistance whatsoever if cops started arresting you. Hundreds of people were trained; the occupation was, basically, legal; so it worked for now.

But Tom Bird, a UW grad student, tells me new protesters are not being allowed in. "We were told building [was] opening at 8am today," he told me via Twitter. "They are not allowing anyone in right now. Not medics, nothing."

UPDATE: A statement from Democratic Leader Peter Barca:

"Denying people access to the Peoples House of Democracy and their elected representatives is not acceptable, especially when it was not communicated to offices in the building and to the public or media in advance and there have been no incidents to date. Politicians may not always enjoy hearing what the citizens of this state have to say, but it is wrong to block elected officials from their constituents. There are a number of scheduled meetings in the building today and the public has a right to attend them and visit their legislators. This silencing of public input is an unacceptable and disturbing trend during these budget debates."

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.