Crackdown Coming in the Capitol in Madison?
“The soaring rotunda of the Wisconsin State Capitol is designed to induce its citizenry to be, as individuals, among the 'resources of Wisconsin.' Whereas some statehouses are maintained apart from the urban fabric, the Wisconsin Capitol Rotunda functions, both literally and symbolically, as a city center and is fully utilized as a public space to which all have claim.” From the United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, National Historic Landmark Nomination, Wisconsin State Capitol.
Shortly after Scott Walker was determined the winner of recall election, Progressive editor Matt Rothschild interviewed Brian Austin, a Madison Police detective and founder of Cops for Labor, a group of progressive police officers who led resistance to Act 10 that stripped all meaningful collective bargaining rights for public sector workers. In that interview Austin expressed concern about the potential for increased police crackdown on activists and organizers who are redoubling their efforts to defend and speak up for human, labor and women’s rights in the wake of Walker’s apparent victory.
Indeed, the day after the election dozens, of police were deployed to the Capitol. In addition to the Capitol Police, University of Wisconsin Police, State Police and DNR Game Wardens were patrolling the grounds and building. Matt Rothschild described the scene as the Solidarity Sing Along was taking place outside that day.
At the end of the Sing Along a woman with pro-Walker bumper stickers on her car who was accompanied by a man open carrying a large handgun screamed out for the police. She alleged that someone had tapped her bumper while parallel parking in front of her car. The police made a big deal of apprehending Fred Majer and his companion Beth Maas and removing them to the Capitol Police station inside for processing. They tried to prohibit an attorney from accompanying them, and one officer temporarily blocked access to the building saying, “You can’t come in.”
When a crowd of people accompanied Fred, Beth and their attorney into the building chanting, "Whose House? Our House!" Rep. Mary Williams (R-Ladysmith) came out of her office shouting, "It is not your house, it's my house and I'm trying to work in here!"
While originally told that they would simply get a parking violation, Majer and Mass have subsequently been served with tickets for disorderly conduct. They will be challenging the tickets in court.
Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs stepped down from his position on May 15. Deputy Chief Dan Blackdeer is now serving as interim chief until a new person is hired for the job.
Regulars at the Solidarity Sing Along, who have been holding the Capitol rotunda space open as a free speech zone by singing there most weekdays from noon to 1 for 15 months, share Brian Austin’s fears that there may be a crackdown on their activities in the advent of new leadership within the Captiol Police.
Two weeks ago officers began taking notes about the identities of singers and the content of the signs and banners they bring to the Sing Along. The notes consist of physical descriptions of people and quotes from the signs. Free speech activists haven’t let that intimidate them. Rather, they have turned these actions into fuel for more creative displays of free speech. For example, Ryan Wherley helped the officers by making a poster with his description already on it.
Knowing the officers were writing down the words on their signs, activists created a series of posters designed as apology letters from police to individual people whose rights they may have violated.
For example, this one: “Dear Damon: It was unconscionable to strap you to a gurney in the basement of the Capitol and leave you without an attorney for several hours. C. Police.”
And this: “Dear Citizens: You have the right to speak freely. You have the right to peaceably assemble. You have the right to petition the government. Carry on. C. Police.”
Another banner depicts an actual incident in which C. J. Terrell was injured by four Capitol Police officers while being physically removed from a public area of the building during the Assembly vote on a controversial mining bill with the words “Wisconsin Capitol Palace Guard.”
Yesterday, C. J. himself displayed the banner in the rotunda. One of the officers who was involved with the incident saw C. J. and the banner and physically shoved him.
I don’t know of anywhere else in the world where police harassment is being met with such sustained action, wit and intelligence.
In the wake of near complete saturation of mass media with rightwing political messages, there is a small group of people bound and determined to hold this physically small but symbolically huge space open for free speech.
If you happen to be in Madison, visit the Solidarity Sing Along over the noon hour and enjoy the fruits of their labor of love and solidarity.
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.
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