Battle of Wisconsin #8: The Weekend Blues

Posted February 28, 2011

The big news this weekend is about cops in the capitol. Friday, most people know, the Wisconsin Professional Police Association said that they would refuse orders to clear out the capitol and instead sleep in to keep the occupation going. Unfortunately, there are three different groups of police working inside the capitol and the WPPA statement is speaking for the city cops here. That leaves the Capitol Police and the State Patrol (Capitol Police actually have their offices in the basement of the capitol and their turf is the capitol and the square surrounding it). The WPPA’s defection Friday was a shock and opened up the question of what’s going to happen inside the capitol? Will the Capitol Police refuse too? Or the State Patrol? Both? Will they come up against each other?

It has been a lot of waiting to see, but my understanding is that the city cops have been pretty openly resistant and the Capitol Police have been issuing orders but not really enforcing them. Example: cops tell the food station to vacate, food station says “no, we’re not leaving” capitol cops say “ok fine.” They say the same thing to the medical station, medical station says “no, we’re not leaving” and they say “ok fine”. And they say it again to the TAA, except the TAA says “OK! We want to preserve our good relationship,” and they willingly clear out and relocate to the Democratic Party office on King Street. So the sense has been that the Capitol Police have to relay their orders, but they won’t enforce them–I’ve heard that Capitol Police aren’t exempt from the bill the way that the other police are, so it might be their way of helping themselves while being in a tough spot.

This whole week there’s been fear of being cleared out of the capitol, which started last Monday when they were closing floors to be “cleaned”. Without exception, every night there’s a rumored time when the doors to the capitol will be locked and people rush from meetings and get-togethers downtown up to the capitol to secure their entry. Friday night was the first “confirmed” time the capitol was to be cleared, which was foiled by the WPPA action and a general convergence to hold the space. Saturday was again supposed to be cleared at 6pm, but just wasn’t enforced–doors were closed so that no one else could enter and there was a concerted call to pack the capitol during the night to keep up the presence. Sunday was when things started to change a little, with rules getting more strict. The police set up some metal detectors and did a trade of three-out/one-in to control traffic and shrink the ratio of protesters. Then it was announced that people would be asked to leave voluntarily at 4pm or risk arrest.

At 4pm the crowd outside the capitol kept up a large presence and thanked people as they came out, some with tears in their eyes, mostly chanting “We are leaving, not retreating” and “We’ll be back”. Cars circling the square honked their horns to the tune of “This is what democracy looks like”. About 1000 protesters committed themselves to staying inside and risking arrest, all the while singing, dancing and chanting loudly to keep their spirits up as the doors were closed and they refused protesters entry into the building. Democratic Assembly representative Brett Hulsey (from Madison’s West Side) addressed the crowd, telling them to leave and give up the capitol, “Now I want you to do the most important part of this campaign, which is to follow me out that door at four o’clock.” The crowd mostly booed him, chanting “hell no, we won’t go” and questioned his place to speak in this space. Meanwhile, a few crafty activists scouted around the building and found a bathroom window and with the aid of a screwdriver made a guerilla entrance to smuggle in food, supplies and, yes, people. As it came to the moment, Capitol Police announced that they would not be arresting anyone nor trying to remove them and news broke that one republican senator would vote “no” to the bill.

This brings us to Monday morning. The doors to the capitol were supposed to be opened at 8am, but remained closed and guarded throughout the day. Apparently, Walker dismissed all remaining city police as well as Capitol Police and their chief, Charles Tubbs, and has since put the State Patrol in charge under the command of Stephen Fitzgerald, who is the father of Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, both Republicans who have aggressively pursued the bill and publicly denounced the protests. (That ain’t good.) At about 1pm the Isthsmus liveblog reported that the State Patrol were sealing the windows of the capitol shut after discovering the traffic through them last night–while this may violate fire code, word is that Madison Fire Department doesn’t have jurisdiction at the capitol, but they are aware. The first move the State Patrol made was to cut off food and supplies to protesters inside, so the only things coming in were apparently smuggled through allies who carry press passes, though as of tonight the Patrol has relaxed their restrictions (they have food again) and once more they will not be moving the protesters.

Obviously this is scary, since the police who have either identified with protesters or been hospitable to them have been dismissed in favor of a more militaristic brand of cops led by the father of the two leading Republican Legislators, but keep in mind that they still have not cleared the capitol and the protesters continued presence is a source of strength and pride. Moreover, the switch to a heavier set of tactics by police and by Walker himself suggests that he knows that he cannot rule by hegemony (people aren’t buying his story on what’s gotta happen) and so he’s shifting to more rule by force. This isn’t definitive, but typically that’s a sign that a regime is unstable and grasping at straws; unfortunately sometimes it works.

As this is happening a number of legal ripostes are coming from the protesters: one is that the closure of the capitol violates the Wisconsin State Constitution, Article 1 Section 4: “The legislature cannot prohibit an individual from entering the capitol or its grounds”; a second one suggests that the Budget Repair bill violates home rule; and then there are some miscellaneous injunctions and restraining orders that have been filed by the ACLU.

Regardless of the fight for the capitol, today does still feel like the calm before a storm. The budget will be unveiled tomorrow night, support for strikes seem to be growing (though there’s no saying who might strike, if anyone), and the danger of a Democratic Party compromise is rearing its ugly head once again.