December 21, 2014

2013 in Review: Protests persist at the Capitol

Capitol Police arrest a protester during the Solidarity Singalong. (Photo: Andrew Beckett)

Capitol Police arrest a protester during the Solidarity Singalong. (Photo: Andrew Beckett)

State Capitol Police launched a crackdown this summer on protesters who gather in the building’s rotunda each day to sign songs against Governor Scott Walker and Republicans, prompting hundreds of arrests over the next month. The continued political battle over the Solidarity Singers and rules for public demonstrations at the Capitol was among our tops stories of the year.

Protesters claimed victory in early July, when a federal court struck down portions of a policy that required small groups gathering in the Capitol to obtain a permit from the state. ACLU attorney Larry Dupuis helped challenge the rule, and said the judge “clearly comprehends the uniqueness of the public space, and how important it is to have a place where people can express themselves in proximity to the very people who represent them.”

The crowd of people taking part in the noon hour sing-along started to grow again, but the celebration was short lived. Just a few weeks after the court decision, Capitol Police started arresting members of the crowd by the dozens for failing to obtain a permit for gatherings of more than 20 people. Singers were notified by loud speaker each day that the demonstration violated the rules. Shortly after that, police would sweep in and take members of the crowd to the Capitol’s basement to be ticketed.

AUDIO: Andrew Beckett reports (1:54)

Protesters were not deterred though, and their numbers swelled over the next few weeks. Police continued to arrest members of the growing crowd, sparking an angry reaction from Democratic lawmakers. State Senator Bob Jauch (D-Poplar) questioned “Is this really the message we want to send to the rest of the world, that this is Wisconsin…a place where people can’t come an express themselves in their state Capitol? That’s baloney!”

The protests, and the arrests, carried on for nearly a month with more than 300 people issued citations. The stand-off was put to rest in early October, when the state and ACLU reached a settlement that only required demonstrators to tell the state they planned to gather in the rotunda. Dupuis said the agreement made it clear “you don’t need to get the permission of the government” to demonstrate, you just have to tell them when you’re coming.

As for the singalong, the numbers have dwindled a little since the fall, but you can still hear the sounds of “We Shall Overcome” and other protest songs almost every day in and around the Capitol.