The Two-Pronged Assault on Dissent in Wisconsin’s Capitol
A disabled veteran collapsed while she was being arrested for unspecified actions at the Capitol on Friday. She was taken to the VA hospital, treated and released in stable condition. While there a Capitol police officer “unarrested” her for the mysterious offense. Another person was arrested and cited for disorderly conduct and taken to the Dane County jail to be charged with obstruct/resist as he attempted to come to her aid.
Dawn Henke, a Gulf War era veteran who lives in Wausau, WI, spent about 20 minutes in the Capitol rotunda after the noontime Solidarity Sing Along, which was held outside on Friday. She walked around the rotunda giving an impromptu speech about constitutional protections for free speech and about how she did not appreciate being referred to as a terrorist by Capitol Police Chief Erwin earlier this week.
Others joined her walking around in a circle on the ground floor, and someone began reading a long document containing new Department of Administration Capitol building access rules. They chanted out random words they heard the speaker say like, “Where’s page six? Where’s page six?”
As Henke and others were quietly exiting the building, a group of police officers cornered Henke and told her she was under arrest. At that point Ted Voth, Jr. stepped up next to her because he thought the police were acting like “wolves cutting weaker ones from the herd” in their pursuit of Henke. The police asked him to step back but he didn’t, and they took him away in handcuffs.
These dramatic arrests come at the end of two weeks of stepped up enforcement of constitutionally dubious administrative rules in the Capitol by new Capitol Police Chief David Erwin. Last week Erwin ordered the arrests of blood donors and free speech activists silently holding t-shirts distributed by a sponsor of the Red Cross blood drive. This week the tactic changed to videotaping people engaging in such prohibited behavior as holding a banner in the rotunda and hand delivering citations to them at their homes and places of work.
Since making his first public comments in the press in August after being named Chief this summer, Erwin has waged a two-pronged assault on political dissent and free speech in Wisconsin’s Capitol.
The first part of his strategy is to carefully craft a narrative of chaos, disorder and fear. He describes the people who feel their voice is not heard in state government under the Scott Walker regime who use the rotunda as a public place to air their grievances as rowdy, noisy protesters who disrupt the business of the people who work in the building.
In tightly controlled appearances in a few selected media outlets, Erwin reproduces unverified stories of legislative staffers being harassed by citizens coming into their offices asking them questions aggressively, and young children being afraid of the loud singing that takes place every day at noon in the rotunda.
Erwin has given long interviews to rightwing public relations outfits Wisconsin Reporter and the MacIver Institute, as well as to Wisconsin Eye. In each of these he claims that he is a non-partisan public employee who respects everybody’s right to free speech. But in an interview with WKOW he said, “There is a time and place for free speech, and we reserve the right to regulate that a little bit.”
In the interview with Wisconsin Reporter that was published on Monday this week, a day before the 11th anniversary of the bombing of the world trade center and the Pentagon, Erwin said, “And so we have a group of people that come here, and last week they were holding signs and they are part of this group that, for lack of a better word, are terrorizing people at this Capitol.”
It is easy for Erwin to make these kinds of inflammatory, unsubstantiated statements to a rightwing publication who will never challenge him on the veracity of the statement. But when he does not make himself available for questions to a broader range of journalists and when his public statements are so few and far between, it’s easy for these lies to take on a life of their own, be picked up by other news agencies as truth.
The second part of the strategy is to harass and intimidate people by issuing citations to people for administrative code violations that the arresting officers do not seem to understand and cannot explain. They have also begun to step up their visible presence at the daily noontime Solidarity Sing Along. In addition to taking notes, now there are one or two officers walking around the building videotaping every person in attendance.
In a strongly-worded letter to Mike Huebsch, Secretary of the Department of Administration, a group of Dane County state legislators strongly objected to the recent arrests saying, “The Capitol police’s response to individuals peacefully protesting is now verging on ridiculous.” They called on Secretary Huebsch to meet with them after his assistant Wendy Coomer and Chief Erwin walked out of a meeting with Rep. Chris Taylor the week before.
It is difficult to understand where this so-called law enforcement strategy is heading, since it seems to be generating more negative publicity for the Capitol police than for the citizens who are asserting their constitutional rights. In his interview with the MacIver Institute, Erwin said that if his law enforcement efforts failed, he would have to consider restricting public access to the building.
This is something his boss Mike Huebsch has wanted to do since the historic protests erupted a year and a half ago. However, in March 2011, Dane County Circuit Court Judge Albert ordered the building be as open and accessible to the public as it had been prior to the uprising. Perhaps the strategy is to intentionally fail so they can justify turning the magnificent public space into a closed and closely controlled place of business for corporations, their lobbyists and their bought and paid for Supreme Court, Governor and Republican legislature.
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.
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