CAP TIMES: Police decline to make arrests, protesters continue to occupy Capitol Sunday evening

February 28, 2011
Judith Davidoff and Shawn Doherty

Madison police officer Brian Austin has been protesting every day since Gov. Scott Walker announced plans two weeks ago to eliminate most collective bargaining rights for most public workers, even though police and fire unions are exempt. He stayed overnight in the state Capitol on Friday and was back Sunday night despite orders from state Capitol Police to leave by 4 p.m. Austin said he was simply keeping his promise to the residents of Wisconsin.

"We took an oath to protect and serve these people," he said of the protesters gathered there. "If I walk out now I feel like I'm not putting my money where my mouth is."

Austin also said he didn't know how he'd face his two kids if he left the Capitol now. "I'm supposed to teach them to do the right thing by example."

Since state Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs announced Friday that all protesters would need to clear out of the Capitol Sunday afternoon so that it could be cleaned, there was concern and uncertainty over whether protesters would refuse to leave and, if so, how law enforcement would respond.

Long lines stretched from the statehouse to the sidewalks in the afternoon as people tried to stream in to bear witness to what many feared could be the end to what has been a remarkable moment in Wisconsin history, the peaceful night and day occupation of the state Capitol by tens of thousands of protesters.

One of those fearing the worst was Daina Zemliauskas, who has worked as a guide at the help desk on the first floor of the rotunda for 10 years now. She was so worried that the protests might end in arrests that she says she was in tears Sunday morning. She says she loves the building, and she couldn't bear to see it become a scene of conflict or violence. After days of observing the protesters and police in action, she says she has come to care about them both. "If I drop something on the floor, five people rush to pick it up for me. They are all so kind and sweet and respectful."

Four o'clock came and went and there was no movement from any of the uniformed police officers — which included state Capitol police and Dane County sheriffs, among others — to force protesters out. At about 4:15 one activist instructed those who intended to stay overnight to clear the first floor of the Capitol and move upstairs, noting that some kind of bargain had been struck with police.

He also pleaded with the protesters not to make things difficult for law enforcement.

"Think of those officers who have supported us," said Bill West, owner of Wild Child clothing store on Monroe Street. "Peace everybody."

But a group of around six people refused to head upstairs, parking themselves on the floor of the Rotunda. There they waited for possible arrest, surrounded by the discarded signs and a few empty water bottles left by the crowds that had used the area as the center of protests for days.

"The people's movement must not police itself!" said Allen Ruff, a historian and longtime activist. "Democracy is individual choice and self determination."

Rebecca Kemble, a driver for Union Cab, also stood her ground. "We're still together," she said of the protesters who had moved to the balcony. "We're fighting the same thing. We're just choosing different methods."

But not all agreed with the decision by some to stay on the ground floor. Dozens of people up in the balcony tried to persuade the others to come up. "Get up here please!" some shouted. "United we stand, divided we fall!"

The determined circle of activists, however, refused to budge. "This is our house," one responded. "Come down here!"

Kelty Carew, a recent UW-Madison graduate, noted from her post on the ground floor that the Democratic senators who fled to Illinois to delay a vote on Walker's budget repair bill have expressed support for the protesters' continued presence in the Capitol. "The occupation is vital," Carew said.

Standing silently to the side were Jeff and Liz Wingert, Madison schoolteachers who have showed up frequently at the protests over the past week. Jeff Wingert wore a sign around his neck reading, "Governor Walker, Tell the Truth. The Middle Class did not create the budget deficit." Both had gone to trainings offered at the Capitol on civil disobedience. If police actually started arresting people, Liz would probably head home. Her husband wasn't sure what he would do. "I don't necessarily want to get arrested," Jeff said. "But I want to make a stand for as long as I can."

Also nearby was Madison therapist Vincent Fish, one of the few people in the entire Capitol wearing a suit. "I came here to lend my support, especially when it looked like there could be some tussling," he said. "The more people who are here calmly, the less people get hurt. But it looks like the strategy is to wait each other out. They are wisely not going to let this turn into a confrontation with each other."

Fish said he admired the police and protesters alike for their restraint. "If this was Chicago, the police would be moving in there with their clubs and mace and forcibly removing people," he said. Agreed his friend Anne Beal, also a therapist, "It's been a lovely crowd. We are here to bear witness, to support democracy and the unions."

Beyond the tight circle of seated activists was a ring of police officers. Like the crowd, they were from all over. There were officers from the Wisconsin State Patrol, with their tell-tale hats. There were officers from Dodge, Ozaukee, Milwaukee, St. Croix, Osceola and Rock Counties. They were standing alert, but friendly and quick to answer questions and give directions.

It was this attitude that many say helped diffuse what could have been a potentially volatile situation. Also crucial was the fact that police officers like Austin have opposed Walker's bill, even though they would not be personally affected by it.

By around 5, it was becoming obvious to many that there weren't going to be any arrests. Zemliauskas was ecstatic. "It's fantastic," she said. "I'm in shock over that. I don't think this could happen in any other state. This is Wisconsin!"

Equally pleased was Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney. Clad in street clothes, Mahoney confirmed people could stay Sunday night as long as they remained peaceful. "There is not going to be any wholesale attempt to go out and arrest people," he said, noting there never was a plan to remove people by force. Just a "dramatic need to clean the floors and the bathrooms out," he added.

Mahoney became emotional when asked to give his personal take on what's been happening at the Capitol the past two weeks. "I have been in law enforcement for 32 years now, and I have never been so proud of law enforcement," he said. "I think what we've seen over the last two weeks is a role model of democracy for the world, and a model of law enforcement working with the community to protect the safety of the people and to protect the right of people to express their views on both sides. We are protecting people and their rights to free speech and assembly and their access to their Capitol."