Inklings of a Crackdown in the Madison Capitol

On Saturday Steve Books, a long-time Veterans For Peace activist, was arrested and taken away in handcuffs for chalking, "This is far, far, far from over," on the sidewalk next to the Capitol. He was fined $205.05 and issued a citation for “conduct otherwise prohibited” under Wisconsin Administrative Code 2.14.

The arrest comes shortly after David Erwin was named the new chief of the Capitol Police. Erwin had been serving as Scott Walker’s personal bodyguard in the state’s Dignitary Protection Unit. A former Marine Drill Sergeant and commander of the State Patrol Air Support Unit, Erwin’s style of leadership is proving to be much different than that of the former chief, Charles Tubbs, who was known for his community policing techniques.

Last week Erwin met with a group of legislative staffers who were concerned about their personal safety at work. A staff member of a Democratic lawmaker who wishes to remain anonymous attended the meeting and reported that much of the discussion revolved around protesters and how to interact with them. Erwin allegedly advised those in the meeting to take self-defense classes.

He then allegedly gave them one specific piece of advice should they find themselves feeling personally threatened by people coming into their offices asking them questions: Take out your cellphone and pretend to be taking a video of the interaction with your left hand, and punch the person in the nose with your right hand. The staffer walked out of the meeting at that point, disgusted that the police chief would be promoting violence.

photo credit: Karen Kinsley
photo credit: Karen Kinsley

Fears of a crackdown on free speech and protest at the Capitol have been heightened since Scott Walker was deemed winner of the recall election on June 5. Erwin’s appointment and his ordering of Books’s arrest for chalking the sidewalk are being taken as confirmation of those fears by many local activists.

On Sunday, the day after Books’s arrest, a couple dozen people came out to chalk in solidarity with him. While several of the “chalk-tivists” came prepared to get arrested, no arrests were made, nor were any citations written. With their trademark blend of humor and social critique, these people who sometimes refer to themselves by a name given to them by Republican legislators – Chronic Capitol Protesters – filled the sidewalks with messages like:

· Watch out, we’re packing chalk

· If money = speech, what does chalk equal?

· WI pays Chief Erwin $99,000 per year to arrest sidewalk chalkers. It’s Working®

· WI Capitol Police Palace Guard: To Intimidate and Harass

· I ♥ free speech – don’t you?

Monday's Solidarity Sing Along in the Capitol rotunda was especially energetic and focused on freedom of speech and assembly. Rumors are that Erwin will begin ordering Capitol Police to enforce all of the controversial new administrative rules restricting free speech and protest published last December.

Participants in the daily Solidarity Sing Along are determined to hold the rotunda – and the sidewalks surrounding the Capitol – open as a free speech zone, come what may. When people’s voices, concerns and points of view have been so decisively shut out of formal political processes as they have under Scott Walker’s regime for the past year and a half, and when the mainstream media does such a poor job of reporting on issues or points of view outside of the consent manufactured by their corporate owners, chalking and singing in public spaces are some of the only remaining avenues of expression.

Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.