Battle of Wisconsin #9: Change of Venue

Posted March 2, 2011

Judge Moeser ruled that the Department of Administration (DOA) could not limit access to the capitol building and granted the restraining order demanded by protesters (I think legal counsel was acquired by WEAC and AFSCME Council 24?). Nonetheless, the entrance to the capitol Tuesday was penned in with guard rails to keep protesters in single file, orange plastic fencing enclosing the lawn and a line of police guarding the doors. Around 80 people have stayed in the capitol, and the DOA’s response to the restraining order was to “satisfy” entry rights by allowing one protester in for everyone who would leave the occupation inside. All this as thousands of people outside chanted “LET US IN!” and “SHAME ON YOU!” Bricklayers from Chicago came out in solidarity with Wisconsin workers and blew up an inflatable suited fat cat strangling a hard-hatted worker with “WISCONSIN” written on him. Laborers from Milwaukee marched in their bright orange LiUNA! shirts and said that any day they’re not here they’re demonstrating back home.

At noon, the city had a meeting at the Dane County District Court to discuss the DOA’s noncompliance with the judicial order. I arrived a little late, the only person in jeans and a t-shirt, but the recap I got was that the judicial branch of the government can only make rulings and has no power to enforce them; that duty belongs to the executive branch of government, of which the DOA is part. So yet another hearing was held at 2:15 again at Dane County Court to determine whether or not the DOA’s actions to limit access to the capitol were constitutional (again, Wisconsin law guarantees access to the capitol and its grounds), with specific deliberation over the one-in one-out process that the DOA was using.

The courtroom itself was completely full in its forty seats and more than one hundred people packed the basement viewing room, where they broadcast the proceedings on a projector. Usually the people who show up to observe court are dressed in business casual attire, but everywhere were ironworkers in worn grey hoodies with hardhats and cotton in their ears, off-duty cops, stateworkers and nurses in uniform. I worked for a lawyer a few years ago and I’ve been in campaigns that have had to use the courts enough to know that the process here was just silly. As the lawyers cross-examined their witnesses, it seemed like this was mostly a stall for time with foolish questions from DOA lawyer, Steven Means, like this one to Marty Beil from AFSCME Council 24,

DOA: “Would you say that you are omniscient?”
Biel: “I’m sorry, did you say omniscient?”
State lawyer: “Objection!”
Judge : “Can we all agree that Mr. Beil is not omniscient?”

The room full of workers gave running commentary during the whole thing in the overflow room. Clapping, hooting, boos and cries like, “BULLSHIT!” were fairly constant through the proceedings in response to the business on the courtroom floor. My sense was that the court has the legal obligation to hear the arguments, but that the judge seemed to lean pretty clearly towards the side of the protesters. Most of the DOA’s arguments were technicalities about the legal weight and language used in the order, with secondary arguments about the rowdiness of protesters who were disturbing business as usual and purportedly making threats to capitol staff.

Its easy to get caught up in the motions and jargon of legalese, so lets break this down for a sec. Judge Moeser issues the restraining order, the DOA ignores it, Judge Albert hears it a second time, the DOA say it was never binding and stalls to keep people out of the capitol on the day that Walker is going to release his biennial budget. The court cases really haven’t been about winning so much as buying time, it seems. And in the course of these two weeks, Walker has tried to shift the sites of power and keeps failing. He started by trying to simply split the working class and pit the unemployed and private sector workers against public workers and keep cops and firefighters out, which failed; he tried to push it through the legislature, and that failed; he tried to use his executive power to kick people out of the capitol by force, hasn’t been able; and now he’s moving through the judiciary and losing. Its getting hard to imagine where this could possibly go from here. The move to the courts, I suspect, was an attempt to remove the pressure of popular power and move into an elite institution with a more controlled atmosphere. And while its true that there’s less popular influence over the judiciary, the courts’ power typically lies in anonymity and obfuscation, which doesn’t really work when you have hundreds of workers packing the courthouse.

That said, having the new budget out has raised the stakes even more, with $900 million to be cut from education, over one million dollars cut from recycling in Madison, insurance companies released of their obligation to cover birth control and more and more. (Budget analysis to come soon.) Another rupture, Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney, a noted anti-immigrant official, has pulled his officers from guard duty saying that they won’t be “palace guards”.

Into Wednesday, 80 occupiers remain, occasionally switching out with fresh activists who take their place, and access to the capitol remains limited.