By Ruth Conniff
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On Monday, David Erwin, the new chief of the Wisconsin Capitol Police, made his first public comments after being appointed to the position last month. He gave a half hour interview to Steve Walters from Wisconsin Eye, and met with members of the Wisconsin Capitol Correspondents Association to answer questions about his approach to law enforcement in the Capitol.
All of the major Wisconsin newspapers printed stories about Erwin’s intention to begin enforcing the contentious new administrative rules curtailing freedom of speech and assembly in and around the Capitol. The Chicago Tribune even picked up the story.
But none of this is news to regular readers of The Progressive, the Wisconsin Citizens Media Cooperative and progressive political bloggers in and around Madison. Ever since former Chief Charles Tubbs’s resignation was announced last spring, those opposed to the corporate takeover of Wisconsin’s government have been waiting for the crackdown.
On the day after the recall election this past June, The Progressive Editor Matt Rothschild reported on the spurious arrests of Beth Maas and Fred Majer. The charges against them have since been dropped. We also reported on the increased police surveillance of protesters and individuals who frequent the daily Solidarity Sing Along, as well as the recent arrest of peace activist Steve Books for chalking messages on the sidewalk around the Capitol.
Last week Nicole Schulte and Edward Kuharski of the Wisconsin Citizens Media Cooperative reported that the Dane County District Attorney’s office will no longer be prosecuting civil forfeiture cases referred by the Capitol Police. Instead, Scott Walker’s Department of Justice will be furnishing prosecutors for non-criminal cases involving tickets written at the Capitol. Despite repeated requests for an interview with Chief Erwin over a period of several weeks, Schulte was not able to get a response from him.
Instead, it seems that Erwin wanted to take time to “clean house,” as he told Steve Walters in the Wisconsin Eye interview, and construct a tidy narrative within the controlled confines of a formal press briefing.
The story Erwin is spinning is one of safety and security for the people who work in the Capitol building. His goal is to return the building to some level of “normalcy” where legislative staffers and police officers can do their jobs in peace without being bothered by singers and protesters.
Erwin has promised to begin enforcing the rule that states that any group of four or more people gathered in the rotunda for an event must apply for a permit at least 72 hours in advance. Part of the permit application holds harmless the State of Wisconsin, including the Capitol Police, against any claim of personal injury, and instead puts the permit applicant on the hook for any damage or injury caused in the course of the event.
But Chief Erwin does not seem to understand that the Capitol is not a “normal” workplace and these are not “normal” political times.
According to the United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, National Historic Landmark Nomination, this is the extraordinary nature of the Wisconsin State Capitol: “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.”
The Solidarity Sing Along began the day after an illegal vote was taken in the Wisconsin State Senate to pass a bill destroying the rights of working people. Participants in the spontaneous event understood that their voices were no longer being heard or acknowledged through the formal political structures of the state. They were determined to not be silenced, however, and have continued to voice their opinions on the political issues of the day every single weekday for nearly eighteen months.
Absent meaningful representation in state-level decision making, this ever-changing group of citizens continues to assert their voices and opinions in the small, free public space that remains available to them.
Thus far, nobody participating in the Solidarity Sing Along has applied for a permit. The group has no formal organization, and participants feel that it is their constitutional right to be in the building expressing their views through song and they should not have to get a permit to exercise those rights.
Tuesday’s Sing Along was attended by more than 200 people and kicked off with a recitation of Article I, Section 4, of the Wisconsin State Constitution:
“The right of the people peaceably to assemble, to consult for the common good, and to petition the government, or any department thereof, shall never be abridged.”
Although police officers were filming the event from various angles, no arrests were made.
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.