By Ruth Conniff on Mar 2, 2011
Thi Le is a freshman at the UW-Madison and part of a core group of about 15 protesters who have been occupying the Capitol building in Wisconsin for the last 15 days.
"We call ourselves Tha Cuddle Puddle," Le says of her group. "It's super-friendly in here. We all take care of each other." Members of the Puddle sleep in the same area of floor space in the Capitol (hence the name) and help with the logistical and background work that keeps the protest going. "We help get things going in the morning, clean up, act as liasons, and we have MCs who do chants and try to keep people's spirits up," says Le.
So Le was surprised when an aide approached her at the King Street entrance to the Capitol Tuesday afternoon and offered her and five other protesters tickets to the Assembly gallery to watch Governor Scott Walker deliver his budget address.
"He told us we had been randomly selected to watch the budget speech," Le said. "On the way in, they said there were a total of 20 members of the public who got tickets. They took us up to the Assembly and we sat down, and they explained the rules to us--no yelling, no throwing things, the basics."
Le says she and the people sitting near her were peaceful and compliant. But after sitting through most of the governor's address, they were forcibly ejected at 4:40. A state patrolman twisted Le's arms behind her back, she says, and refused to answer her repeated questions about why she was being escorted out.
Keeping her arms pinned, Le says, the guard forced her from the Assembly Gallery. "I said 'I am not resisting you,'" she recalls.
Along with Le, David Wasserman, a Middle School teacher at Sennett Middle School in Madison, describes being roughly removed from the governor's speech, despite being peaceful and complying with the guards throughout the address.
"They kicked us out because we were not clapping," Wasserman says. " "I never once stood to cheer or jeer. I totally complied because I didn't want to get kicked out. The person next to me was fuming. When all the Republicans around us stood and cheered she stood and booed and they came over and got her. She said, 'I know, I know, I'm going,' and she left. But that drew attention to us."
When Le, Wasserman, and a few other protesters seated around them were escorted out, they were being quiet, sitting down, and asked why they were being removed but received no explanation, according to both Le and Wasserman.
They acknowledge that they made a few gestures of dissent. "When the governor entered the room, and everyone stood, a few of us turned our backs, and a guard came over and said, 'You can't do that. That's a sign of disrespect.' So we said, 'OK,' and turned back around," Le says.
"Maybe I pushed it a little," says Wasserman, "because they said you couldn't have signs, so I wrote on my forearms: "Not Fair" on one, and "Solidarity" on the other. As we were told 'Please rise,' I stood up and turned and showed my arms. A guard came over and said, 'Please, sir, turn around,'--he said something like my arms were a form of signage. So I did. Then we stood for a prayer. Being a Jew, I didn't want to thank the Lord Jesus, so I turned around and they came over again and told me not to do that, so I sat down. And I sat quietly for the next thirty minutes. They said do not stand or clap or cheer or jeer--but the Republicans were doing it."
That particularly galled Le, who approached a guard to ask why the audience of Walker supporters, who she and Wasserman say outnumbered the 20 protesters in the back of the gallery 220-to-one, were allowed to break the rules.
Both recall that the guard told them there were too many of them to escort out. "But if one of us did something like that, we'd have to go," Wasserman says.
Le asked one of the guards for a copy of the rules, and he gave it to her. "This was at 4:30--I wrote it down," Le says. "I started checking tally marks for every time the audience would stand up and cheer--because the rules clearly said that was not allowed. At 4:40 I had 8 tally marks--so in ten minutes they did it 8 times."
Le brought out the rules when the officers came to escort her out. "I said, 'We didn't do anything on this list, and everyone else did,' she says. The guard was like, 'Ma'am you have to leave.' He grabbed my right arm, put it behind my back, took my left arm. I said, 'Can I get my coat?' I was bending down toward it, because it had slipped down in the chair. He said, 'No.' He yanked me back and pushed me out. The same thing was happening to David. My arms were still pinned. He used a surprising amount of force."
Both Le and Wasserman repeatedly asked why they were being ejected, they say, and the patrol officer refused to answer. "He handed us off--me, David, and the lady who booed--to another guard, and said, 'These people have to be escorted out right now.'"
The guard who led them to the Capitol doors told Le, "Don't worry, you're not going to be given a citation or arrested," she says.
Once outside, Le and Wasserman went looking for reporters to tell their story. "We finally ended up talking to CBS," Le says.
Wasserman says they spotted the Sergeant at Arms, who had read them the rules when they were first seated in the Assembly chamber. "He was smoking a cigarette outside. We went up to him and said, 'Hey, why did you kick us out?' He just walked away."
"No one should be handled like that," she says. Both Le and Wasserman felt their treatment was unfair, that the arbitrary enforcement of the rules was a farce, and that their First Amendment rights were violated.
"We were token people in there," says Wasserman. "So they could say they let in members of the public. They definitely had their eyes on us. And they removed us toward the end so we wouldn't disrupt things."
"Believe me, I was showing incredible restraint," he adds. "We were surrounded by other people who were overtly breaking the rules-- clapping, cheering--we just didn't look the part they wanted."
Outside the building, during the governor's speech, a crowd of about 1,000 people gathered on the Capitol steps, chanting loudly and waving huge American and Wisconsin flags.
The governor's budget is a major step in what has been a protracted battle over the future of the state and the governor's controversial plans to radically cut funding for education and other public services. It slashes funds for schools and local governments by $1 billion over the next two years, and forbids municipalities from raising property taxes to make up the shortfall, and ends opportunities from AP classes to programs that have helped low-income students go to college. Meanwhile, it further lowers corporate taxes.
The rage was palpable outside the Capitol, where the drumming and chanting reached a roar as Walker concluded his speech and the crowd surged toward the doors. Protesters held up huge red letters, which glowed against the white dome in the afternoon sun, spelling out the word SHAME. A Wisconsin flag with a yellow "for sale" tag and a large American flag with corporate logos instead of stars flapped in the breeze.
To thunderous drums, the crowd chanted "Whose House? Our House!" and
"Let us in!"
The issue of democracy and basic First Amendment rights have moved to the fore in Wisconsin since Sunday, the day after a historic, 100,000- plus rally, when state authorities began ejecting protesters, locking all but a small group out of the building, and then refusing to reopen for regular business hours on Monday.
On Tuesday, the same day as the governor's budget address, Dane County Judge Daniel Moeser issued a temporary restraining order to reopen the building during normal business hours. But the state did not open the doors.
At a hearing on Tuesday afternoon before Dane County Circuit Judge John C. Albert, former state attorney general Peg Lautenschlager argued that the public should have full access to the Capitol.
Department of Administration lawyer Steven Means argued that the Capitol was already open, and that there was "no underlying cause of action."
Lautenschlager countered, "If getting access to the Capitol is not an appropriate cause of action in our state or nation, we're in a sad situation."
Her clients' request was a simple one, she added, "that citizens be allowed access to their Capitol."
"From our perspective the Capitol is open," argued Means.
This led to jeers and groans among the protesters who filled an overflow room downstairs from the courtroom to watch the proceedings on closed-circuit TV.
Martin Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union AFSCME Council 24 testified that his members have had free access to their legislators to lobby, hold rallies, and bring as many as 2,000 members to the Capitol, and have never had their access restricted as it is now, with locked doors manned by state patrol who demand I.D. and special notice from legislators before letting people in.
Means conducted an aggressive--at times comical--cross examination.
"Have you seen people eating in the Capitol building?" he demanded.
"I enjoy the fine cuisine in the Capitol building," Beil answered.
"Have you heard shouting?"
"I have heard raised voices."
"You have heard very loud voices, correct? . . . If you were trying to read a piece of paper or to do work you would find it disruptive-- you would, wouldn't you," Means demanded.
He went on to ask if Beil had seen and heard drums, other musical instruments, hand-clapping, animals ("just service animals"), and if there were child-care areas and if the people watching the children were licensed (Beil didn't know).
"Is it your view that the Capitol has no right to be open certain hours and closed certain hours?" Means demanded.
Lautenschlager objected that this was a legal opinion.
"Does it belong to all the people?" Means asked, and if so, "What if someone wanted to get in there and hold a rally but couldn't because your union had taken over the Rotunda?"
Beil said he was sure something could be worked out.
Had he heard of other disruptions, did he have any experience with crowd control, did he know about threats to safety, and, finally,
"Are you omniscient?"
"I'm not omniscient," Beil admitted.
Objection from Lautenschlager--argumentative.
"Do we need to know if he's omniscient?" the judge asked.
The state is building a case that the protesters are a threat to safety. But so far, there have been no arrests directly connected to the protests. They have been remarkably peaceful.
Nor are the Capitol police particularly enthusiastic about providing a personal security service for the nation's most unpopular governor, or squashing free speech.
Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney, on Tuesday told the Wisconsin State Journal that he pulled his deputies from Capitol door duty because it is not their job to act as "palace guard."
In fact, the police have been working co-operatively with the protesters to protect peaceful free expression.
It was the state patrol, not the Capitol police or local law enforcement officers who handled Wasserman and Le roughly for daring to be less than enthusiastic about the governor's budget address.
Le was back inside the Capitol building Tuesday night, bedding down with Tha Cuddle Puddle. She wasn't sure why the police left her back in--"maybe because I'm part of the group that has been taking care of things all along. They might have needed more marshalls inside. It's the principle of having people in here who can keep the peace."
It's hard to imagine a more peaceful person than Le.
"Education has been a big thing for me," she says. When she was growing up and attending Madison East High School, "my circumstances were not the greatest. I got an academic full ride scholarship to UW- Madison. When I heard what this bill would do--I was busy with my classes--but I came down here finally. I saw the sense of unity and community and I thought, 'Wow. This is amazing.'"
For two weeks, she has left only to attend class and take the occasional shower.
Her group includes Willa from Sheboygan, who usually commutes the two hours, and Marissa from Milwaukee who goes back and forth the hour- and-a-half for work, and another student, Sarah Thomas from Stevens Point.
"You meet all these people and we're all so diverse and different and we all get along because we all believe in the same thing. It amplifies our strength," Le says.
Her group recently made T-shirts that say "Our Thugs Give Hugs," making fun of the notion that there was anything scary about the protesters.
"'Cause that's really what we do. We give a lot of hugs," Le says.
On Tuesday night, she and Wasserman joined the list of witnesses in the hearing before Judge Albert on whether it's safe to give such people access to the Capitol, and whether the governor is trampling citizens' rights.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Sudden Retirements Wreak Havoc in Wisconsin."
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