WSJ: Lawmakers approve rule that could halt sleepovers in Capitol

February 24, 2011
Clay Barbour

The protest can continue, but the party is almost over.

Come Saturday, nearly two weeks after it started, the non-stop, drum-circle chant-a-thon that has consumed the state Capitol could officially end.

Lawmakers approved a rule change this week that clears the way for Capitol police to close down the statehouse at 6 p.m. on Saturday and end the biggest rally in recent memory. The only question now is whether Gov. Scott Walker will ask the officers to enforce the rule. Cullen Werwie, the governor's spokesman, said Thursday the final decision has not been made.

The statehouse must remain open to the public as long as lawmakers are in session, or when a public hearing is under way. Otherwise it typically closes at 6 p.m. The new rule ends public hearings by 6 p.m. as well. With no public hearing and no session, there is no reason to keep the building open.

The end of the peaceful festivities cannot come soon enough for Republican legislators, who have dealt with noise, crowds and near-constant haranguing. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, even called the situation a "powder keg."

"Have you ever gone to work and had to fight huge crowds, loud chants and constant drumming," said State Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester. "You expect a certain amount of decorum here, but that's not what has gone on the past few weeks."

But to many Democrats, the huge crowds have been a welcome sight. They would like to see them stay.

"Making them leave is just another example of the Republicans trying to silence the people," said State Rep. Tamara Grigsby, D-Milwaukee.

The rally in its present form started on Feb. 15, when the Legislature held its public hearing on Gov. Scott Walkers budget repair bill, which would severely curb collective bargaining rights for most state and local employees. The meeting attracted thousands. It ended 17 hours after it began.

To Democratic lawmakers, who felt thousands of voices went unheard, continued the meeting in an unofficial capacity in another room. That meeting ran for a week straight, with officials suspending it only when the Assembly session started Tuesday.

The public hearing opened the door for overnight stays. Since it started, there has been a 24-hour presence inside the Capitol with throngs of people chanting and marching during the day, and hundreds sleeping on blow-up mattresses and make-shift pallets at night. The event, to many, seems one mud slide away from Woodstock.

Drum circles and horns blow into the night. The building's limestone walls are covered in hand-made posters. And the air is thick, with more than a hint of gym locker. Scattered among the crowd are homeless people, who have taken advantage of the situation.

But to many of the protestors, this has been a lesson in civic responsibility and support for union workers. They say the constant presence of the public has helped lawmakers understand the seriousness of the law they are debating.

"We are making a difference, I really believe that," said Dan Wise, a 19-year-old Madison Area Technical College sophomore. "If they kick us out, we will protest outside. But we will still protest."

Wise said he leaves the Capitol to attend class and take showers. He has been joined during the past 10 days by his friends, Neporsha Hamlin, 19, and Alyssa Skaar, 21.

"This has been a life experience we will never forget," Hamlin said. "I feel like all of these people are family."