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A sense of foreboding turned into jubilation at the Madison capitol Friday at noon. After 11 defenders of free speech were arrested over the previous two days for holding signs or T-shirts, more than 200 demonstrators showed up for the Friday Sing Along, which has been going on for more than 18 months.
People came to sing but also to challenge Walker administrations rules that prohibit the display of signs and the gathering of four or more people to express political views without a permit. Dozens were prepared to get arrested over the noon hour, some for the first time.
Mary Ray Worley, 56, in a wheelchair, had a sign with the words of Article 1, Section 4, of the Wisconsin State constitution—the section that protects our first freedoms. “It’s really important to defend free speech,” she said. “Without it, we’re merely a cog in the machine.” Worley said she’s never been arrested before. “But,” she added, “it’s on my bucket list.”
It didn’t come to that, as capitol police officers hovered around the edge of the crowd but did not make any arrests. Three of them, including the sergeant on duty, refused to comment as to why they weren’t arresting people today for the very same thing they were arresting people for yesterday and the day before. They referred all questions to the public information officer of the Department of Administration. (A call and e-mail was not returned in time for this filing, but will be added as an addendum if and when it comes in.)
The signs at the Sing Along were creative, as has been the case throughout the Wisconsin Uprising. One person had a placard that said “Sine.” Another person nearby had one that said “Cosine.” A third said “Tangent.”
Other signs said:
“Undocumented Singer (No Permit).”
“The First Amendment Is My Permit.”
“People Have Died for These Rights. The Least I Can Do Is Sing for Them.”
“We’ll Be Here Until Wis. Will Be Better.”
“Rise Up, Wisconsin. Your Democracy Needs You.”
As usual, the Sing Along was a mix of civil rights and union songs, with additional lyrics to fit the fight against Scott Walker. For instance, one new verse of “We Shall Overcome” went: “Walker will not be governor some day.”
Senator Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend), notorious for claiming that single-mother families constitute de facto child abuse, came out of his office to observe the event. When asked if he was there to sing along, he said, “I have a terrible voice and haven’t sung since I was seven years old. Some people are better off keeping their mouths shut.” He chuckled when asked if he was referring to himself.
Representative Chris Taylor (D-Madison) has been a staunch defender of free speech rights in the capitol. She addressed the grateful crowd today, telling the defenders of free speech that she had a meeting with the capitol police chief and a representative from the Department of Administration about the crackdown. “He and the DoA representative ended up walking out of the meeting,” Taylor said. “They were refusing to tell me any specifics about what conduct is prohibited. It’s really unfortunate. We can’t even have a dialogue.”
Taylor praised a court decision yesterday by Dane County Judge Frank Remington, who ruled that the police had been improperly interpreting the rule they were using to arrest people for carrying signs. He said the administrative rule the police were enforcing had to do with “displays and decorations” and that written permission was needed for a sign that is “erected, attached, mounted, or displayed.” The judge determined that holding a sign is not the same thing as displaying a sign. “The word 'displayed' implies something more than an individual holding a handmade sign over their head. . . . The term 'displayed' implies something like a freestanding exhibit showcased in the Capitol, not an individual holding a handmade sign over their head comparing the governor to a character in a comic book. Thus, the terms of § Adm. 2.07(2) does not prohibit the Plaintiffs' conduct.”
Said Taylor: “I’m thankful that we still have a court willing to protect our rights.”
The crowd chanted “Thank you! Thank you!” to Taylor, who praised the defenders of free speech and urged them to “continue to be peaceful, respectful, and joyous.”
Rep. Chris Taylor's Scorching Letter to Madison Capitol Police Chief: " I was very shocked and disappointed today when you walked out of a meeting scheduled in my office," she wrote, saying he refused "to answer the most basic questions about the basis for recent arrests in the state Capitol and the specific conduct you believe to be unlawful.
Near the end of the Sing Along, Mary Ray Worley made an announcement: “I want to give a big thank you to Chief David Erwin for throwing this great party today!” The crowd roared its agreement and broke into the final song, “Solidarity Forever,” followed by chants of “We’re Still Here.”