Wisconsin protesters win standoff
Faced with hundreds of drumbeating, dancing and chanting demonstrators who refused to leave the Wisconsin state Capitol after the doors were closed at 4 p.m. Sunday, police decided to let the crowd continue the protest against Gov. Scott Walker's budget-repair bill.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MADISON, Wis. — Faced with hundreds of drumbeating, dancing and chanting demonstrators who refused to leave the Wisconsin state Capitol after the doors were closed at 4 p.m. Sunday, police decided to let the crowd continue the protest against Gov. Scott Walker's budget-repair bill.
"The people who are in the building will be allowed to stay," Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs said Sunday night. "There will be no arrests unless people violate the law."
It was unclear how long the protesters might be able to maintain their nightly vigil. The policy will be reviewed, Tubbs said.
The state's Department of Administration had sought to bring a sense of business-as-usual to the Capitol by establishing regular hours. Officials said they were trying to clean the building after nearly two weeks of continuous protests.
The agency is led by an appointee of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, whose plan to strip public-employee unions of nearly all collective-bargaining rights has led to huge rallies in opposition, with as many as 70,000 demonstrators marching around the Madison Statehouse.
Tubbs, however, announced the decision to let the protesters stay after he saw how they moved aside while work crews went about cleaning the Capitol, including mopping and polishing floors.
"People are very cooperative," the police chief said. "I appreciate that."
It was yet another surreal moment in the continuing saga of political chaos at the Capitol.
"We delivered a message to Governor Walker. We'll continue to be here to kill this bill," Peter Rickman, 28, said during a news conference shortly before the doors shut.
Protesters said they were prepared to be arrested peacefully to make their point that the Capitol should remain open.
The statehouse occupation began Feb. 15 when hundreds of people lined up to testify to the Joint Finance Committee, opposing Walker's bill.
Besides severely restricting collective-bargaining rights, the governor's plan is aimed at closing a $137 million budget shortfall by cutting state employees' pension and health-care benefits. Union leaders — who have offered concessions that they say would close the gap — call Walker's plan an attack on organized labor, a crucial source of money and foot soldiers for Democratic candidates. The fight has prompted solidarity protests nationwide, as well as similar legislation in several other states.
The finance committee stopped taking testimony about 3 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 16, but Democrats in the Legislature immediately started holding an informal listening session that went around the clock for days.
"No one had planned to stay here," said Alex Hanna, 25, a student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "It emerged organically."
There was an air of expectancy throughout Sunday as demonstrators gathered inside the rotunda. Some came to snap photos of the numerous signs that hung on the walls of the building.
Capitol police in recent days have made it more difficult for protesters to spend the night by banning sleeping bags and containers of food from being brought inside and by gradually forcing people to move from upper floors to lower floors. "They have been trying to condense us," said Michela Torcaso, who has spent six consecutive nights inside.
Most of the officers inside were drawn from the ranks of departments across the state, and several said there was little reason to detain or eject protesters because none were behaving violently or appeared to be a threat to others.
At a few minutes past 4 p.m., an announcement came over the sound system: "The Capitol is now closed."
Scores of demonstrators left the building, while a few hundred made their way to the first floor. They vowed to hold their ground inside the building.
Police were not letting anybody else inside, and Tubbs said demonstrators who have occupied all three floors of the Capitol would have to relocate to the ground floor. He added that anyone who leaves the building will not be allowed back in, although police will allow union officials to bring food into the building for protesters.
Dena Ohlinger, 22, a student at UW-Madison, said she had attended classes and worked during the day during the past week and used a yoga mat and blanket while sleeping atop the cold, marble floors of the Capitol at night.
"Everyone has been incredible here," she said. "Regular social barriers have been broken down."
Blanca Martin, 29, said the protests accomplished many things even as the budget-repair bill makes its way through the Legislature. All 14 Democratic state senators fled to Illinois to block final passage of the bill.
"We've had unity of purpose, unity of spirit," Martin said. "Everyone who has been here has been transformed for life."
Demonstrators have organized cleanup details, set up a system of marshals and brought in food.
"There has never been a cleaner group of protesters or a more public health-conscious group of protesters," said Matt Kearny, 28, a research assistant at UW-Madison.
Shortly before 8 p.m., a worker on a waxing machine polished the main floor of the rotunda and dozens of demonstrators chanted: "Thank you. Thank you."
Authorities had planned to reopen the Capitol at 8 a.m. Monday after Sunday's closure. But David Vines, a 19-year-old UW-Madison, freshman, worried that any lost momentum would be difficult to recapture.
"It's so difficult to organize something like this," Vines said. "Any break to the momentum could be a cut to morale. I hope I'm wrong, but I think the occupation will die."
Information from The Associated Press, The New York Times and The Washington Post is included in this report.
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