Preview: I wrote this chronologically. At the bottom I give extensive discussion to an incident in which a Republican was surrounded by an angry crowd, an event that is likely to get circulated in some arenas.
Quite a day. Despite a court injunction issued this morning that the Capitol should be open, the Capitol stayed in lockdown all day today. Wisconsin’s Capitol building is normally open to the public. The Constitution says that legislators cannot bar citizens from the Capitol, and another law requires that the Capitol be open to the public when the State Supreme Court is in session, which it is now. Walker’s Dept of Administration challenged the injunction and argued that they were in compliance because a small number of protesters were allowed inside and assembly members could escort 8 people at a time to and from their offices. A court hearing on the matter began at 2:30 this afternoon and was still going on when Walker delivered his budget speech at 4.
As I have tried to convey, and you should be able to see from many first-hand accounts by participants and reporters, the mood of the protest before the Capitol was locked was largely celebratory and well-ordered. This account a Huffington Post is one outsider’s experience of several days inside the Capitol. There are dozens like it to be found. People brought their children to the protests. There was a lot of intentional crowd-management going on all along. The regular “thank you” chants to the police and cleaning crews and the ubiquity of “peaceful protest” signs and exhortations to ignore people you disagree with were all part of the emergent culture. The crowd last Saturday was pushing 100,000 in a heavy snow storm! It was the place to be if you were not sick like I was. You should try to locate a cache of photos from they day. Amazing. From a high like that to the crash of the locked Capitol.
The Capitol today was surreal. Normally a vibrant part of downtown, it looked more like a scene from a military putsch. A large orange fence cordoned off the plaza in front of the State Street entrance, barring citizens from being anywhere near these main doors. The controlled entrance was at the opposite side of the building. About a dozen officers pulled from police and sheriff departments all around the state stood in a row, “guarding” the door and checking passes. (After I’d watched them for a while, I heard one mutter to the other that two men could have done the job.) When I arrived at 2, there was a noisy crowd of perhaps a thousand people shouting “let us in” and inveighing against the Governor. I wandered to the north side, where there was an exit door being casually guarded by four out of town sheriffs. I asked them what they thought. They said they were not allowed to discuss politics while on the job. I said, “fair enough.” But then they muttered that they thought the situation was a bad thing to see. They got called inside, and the last one left, before leaving, said: “I’m from a union family.” Repeatedly I heard police complaining among themselves. The Dane County Sheriff issued a press release that he was refusing to send any more officers to the Capitol because the Department of Administration would not explain why the doors were locked and he did not want his officers “in the position of being palace guards.” The Dept of Administration seems to be planning to have the new restrictions in place for the long hall, as they opened up a new web site today to explain their policies. Looks like citizens who oppose the governor are no longer going to be allowed into the Capitol. (OK, I can be slightly balanced. The Capitol is a big place, a lot of people work there, including the Supreme Court and a lot of other groups who are not the Governor. It is true that it must be quite difficult to get work done with drumming and chanting going on all the time and 8000 people crammed in all available spaces.)
The celebratory mood was gone, and there was a lot more anger around today. As it became time for Walker’s speech, the crowd was moved over to the State Street side to make as much noise as possible as close to the assembly hall as possible. I stayed behind to watch the police and door. Mostly things were orderly. At one point, a big White guy was giving a Black officer a hard time, asking “so what would happen if I just tried to walk past you?” The officer kept saying, “I’m just here doing my job,” and when asked how he was, said “I’m fine.” A protest marshal was right next to the guy, repeating “peaceful protest.” I saw a couple of marshals signal each other and I heard one say to the other “that guy is trying to provoke the crowd.” Pretty soon they were both in there intervening, and someone started a “thank you cops” chant. The incident broke up. I left shortly thereafter, while the speech was still going on.
There’s some gripping footage on Youtube of the crowd turning ugly today (after the speech, it looks like) that begins in a way that will be all over right-wing media but as it progresses should also be a training film for nonviolence workshops: a Republican Senator Grothman wanders into the crowds and people start chasing him, shouting “shame, shame.” Some people are shouting the f-word. You can hear the protest marshals shouting “don’t touch him” and “peaceful protest” but it’s kind of noisy and ugly. If you look, you can see the orange marshal shirts trying to get close. Then a Democrat Rep Hulsey in the orange t-shirt appears and puts his arm around his colleague and the two of them are surrounded by marshals. No police anywhere in sight — they are guarding the doors, although I’m sure they could do no better than the protest marshals. The rest of the footage is gripping. There is an angry element in that crowd and it takes several minutes before the marshals get the situation under control and the legislator can be escorted out of the situation by fire fighters. But it is gradually de-escalated and the chants of “peaceful protest” win the day. Here’s the link. It is 12 minutes and definitely worth watching to the end if you have any research or personal interest in protest. Here’s a local news account of the incident from the Cap Times : http://host.madison.com/ct/news/local/health_med_fit/vital_signs/article_14946c20-448b-11e0-9529-001cc4c03286.html Note that it makes no mention at all of the protest marshals, although it does talk about the efforts of the protesters to keep people calm, and the Republican himself says he was not afraid.
And the budget message? Truly horrible and vindictive. Pretty much everything bad you can imagine. It feels like Armageddon. In this state, local government and education get most of their money from the state under rules that prohibit them from raising local taxes: the proposed budget makes deep cuts in both that can only be met by cutting people’s salaries. Job loss for state workers is part of the plan. And much more. And remember, even the Wall Street Journal reports that Wisconsin’s fiscal problems are modest.
Is there hope? I’ve previously noted my pessimism. But I do see a little hope. The Draconian character of the proposed budget is so extreme and so harmful to much of the state that it is possible that some Republic legislators will recoil from some of its excesses. It also occurred to me that all those statewide police who’ve spent the last 10 days in Madison drawing overtime and fraternizing with the protesters — especially the ones putting on “cops for labor” t-shirts when off duty — may influence their friends and neighbors when they head home. Walker has his supporters, to be sure, but right now it looks like the middle, including some Republicans, think he has gone overboard. I’m not sure any of this is enough to break Republican party discipline and prevent most of the damage. But those Senators are still out of state, and the longer this goes on, the lower Walker’s public support.
White-hot mobilization like the past two weeks can’t go on. Something has to shift. People are trying to figure out what is next.