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Scores of protesters return to Capitol

Jul. 26, 2013
 
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MADISON — The second day of a police crackdown to rein in daily protests in the Wisconsin Capitol instead attracted scores of demonstrators to the building Thursday, leading to another round of arrests in the long-running standoff between protesters and Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s administration.

The developments again underscored the stalemate between a loosely organized group of protesters known as the Solidarity Singers and Capitol Police officers. The group has been meeting in the rotunda to sing songs bashing Walker and GOP policies during the noon hour nearly every day for two years. The Capitol Police, which are under Walker’s control, have issued the protesters dozens of tickets, but they refuse to back down, arguing they’re free to exercise their free speech rights.

Earlier this month a federal judge ruled large groups need a permit to gather in the Capitol. Armed with the ruling, police launched a crackdown on the singers on Wednesday. They arrested nearly two dozen of the 50 or so people in the rotunda, handing them $200 tickets for not having a permit.

The arrests only angered the protesters. The state Department of Administration, which oversees the Capitol Police, estimated as many as 100 people filled the rotunda Thursday. One wore a gag. Another held a giant photograph of Walker pointing at the camera. Superimposed over the photograph was the message, “Hey, you … singer with a sign. You’re under arrest.”

Officers used a loudspeaker to warn the group to disperse and posted a dry-erase sandwich board in the rotunda warning them to leave, just as they did Wednesday. Police started moving through the crowd in waves, arresting people and leading them off to their basement station as the crowd bellowed “Shame!” and “Whose house? Our house!” The arrestees returned minutes later, holding their tickets aloft to applause.

“It’s ridiculous,” Paul Sopko Jr., a 51-year-old Madison handyman, said as he looked at his ticket. “People are just trying to stand up for what they believe is right. Every time they do something, the crowd doubles. Every time they threaten the people, it brings more out of the woodwork.”

DOA spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis issued a statement saying police issued 26 citations for not having a permit. One person was cited for disorderly conduct, one person for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest and one person for resisting arrest.

“The question to ask is why they refuse to apply for a permit,” Marquis said.

Madison has a long history of public protests, from a famous civil rights march in 1969 to violent clashes with police during the Vietnam era. Tens of thousands of people converged on the Capitol in 2011 to demonstrate against Walker’s contentious law stripping public workers of their union rights.

The sing-alongs are a remnant of those protests; many of the same demonstrators attend the gatherings. The group has been a point of tension since they began; their songs reverberate off the Capitol’s marble walls, creating a din that echoes through the building.

“It’s sad when a person feels their life is so empty and meaningless that the highlight of their day is to invade an otherwise peaceful capital every noon hour and raise a raucous in the rotunda,” Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-West Allis, said in a statement Thursday.

Walker’s administration revised its Capitol access policy in December 2011 to require permits for any organized activity. Since then, police have issued the singers dozens upon dozens of citations.

The protesters maintain the Wisconsin Constitution guarantees them the right to assemble and petition their government. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit, prompting U.S. District Judge William Conley to issue a preliminary injunction on July 9 stating groups of fewer than 20 people don’t need a permit. He didn’t rule on the constitutionality of the permit policy as a whole, however, setting a trial for Jan. 13.

Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, who joined the 2011 protests before she ran for office, was among a group of Democratic lawmakers who watched the arrests Thursday. She said Walker’s tactics aren’t working.

“Seems to me it’s backfiring,” she said.

Sapko said the sing-alongs won’t end until Walker is out of office. The protesters vowed to return as they dispersed at the end of the lunch hour, chanting “We’ll be back!”

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