Palace Guards and First Amendment Rights in Madison

Click on Photo to Read Timeline of Wisconsin Uprising Against Gov. Scott Walker

From the Twitter feed #wiunion today, we gleaned an important story by The Nation contributor John Nichols titled: “Why a Wisconsin Sheriff Refuses to Serve as Governor Walker’s ‘Palace Guard’” Nichols heralds Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney, a hugely popular local elected official who “has worked long hours to help coordinate the response of various law-enforcement agencies to demonstrations that have attracted over 100,000 people, round-the-clock sleep-ins and sit-ins at the state Capitol and even clashing rallies between a small Tea Party contingent and a very large union crowd.”

But has Sheriff Mahoney earned the respect of upstart Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker? Not at all.

Sheriff Mahoney’s determination to preserve the peace, protect demonstrators and officials and respect basic liberties has earned him the scorn of those who are calling for an aggressive crackdown on dissent.

As the governor and his aides have attempted to limit access to the state Capitol – which the Wisconsin constitution says must remain open to all citizens – Sheriff Mahoney has steadily argued that he and his deputies are present both to maintain public safety and to defend the right of citizens to assemble and petition for the redress of grievances.

As Walker’s lawless approach has gone to extremes, culminating in a failure by the governor’s Department of Administration to obey an order from a Dane County Judge that the Capitol be opened, Sheriff Mahoney has become more explicit in his objections.

The sheriff objected when Dane County deputies, who have been frontline officers from the start of the recent protests, were the doors of the Capitol were not opened. Finally, he pulled his officers from the scene.

“When asked to stand guard at the doors that duty was turned over to the Wisconsin State Patrol because our deputies would not stand and be palace guards,” said Sheriff Mahoney. “I refused to put deputy sheriffs in a position to be palace guards.”

Also from this morning’s Twitter feed, an anonymous staffer inside the Wisconsin Capitol details what happened when they entered the “people’s house” on Monday — the day of Gov. Walker’s much anticipated budget unveiling:

“I come into work this morning, using my employee ID to get in (been that way for a while.)

What I learn once arriving is that the elevators have ALL been shut down and no one is allowed to go up above the ground floor (I guess for people who… have stayed the night -who are ALL being compliant, in my opinion) unless you have an employer ID or are escorted by a legislative staff member to the upper floors.

Police of all types stationed at every stairwell.

And then I realize that the building is in lockout mode.

The King St. entrance looks like it is prepared to receive the “raucous” visitors: long tables set out with plastic tubs – just like at the airport, but smaller – serving the same purpose: to hold coins, keys, metals of any type – metal detection wands at the ready.

But nothing is happening.

No one is entering the building.

It went on like this for hours. I asked the random police to ask what was happening, but no one seemed to know, or say. I truly believe that they did not know what was happening. It is a state of confusion now.

All of a sudden, at about 1:45pm, (keeping in mind that normal business hours on a weekday are 8am – 6pm), one center-revolving door lets in the light, and they are very slowly and cautiously allowing people to enter. Apparently, the Dem. Assembly members have called a public hearing on this “repair” bill. The law dictates that this bldg. is open for public hearings.

The thing is, a citizen of this state couldn’t just come in and get to the hearing as on any other day. One had to acquire a “legislative pass” in order to enter this meeting. Having learned this piece of news, and never had heard of such a thing, I called a couple of other representative’s offices to ask what this is, where to get one. They had never heard of such a thing, either.

As things were changing from moment to moment and no one still had answers, a State Trooper told me that these passes were being given out at the entrance (inside). So I go to this entrance, and there is a Trooper giving out sticky tags, upon which were obviously computer generated, quick-to-the-get tags that read something like, “Legislative Hearing” with today’s date. But he had a total of four sheets with ten tags each.

40 legislative passes.

There must have been hundreds of people outside waiting to get in.

After people spoke their minds at the hearing, they were escorted out of the building by police.

Within the past couple of days, and I’m not sure when this was exactly instated, food was prohibited from being brought into the capitol- all those pizzas from Uganda to waste. (Except for last night, when my new hero, Charles Tubbs) the Chief of Cap Police allowed the protesters to stay the night.

In fact, everyday, there have been more and more restrictions as to what a person can bring in or where they can go – or pee.

As a last resort – and I am privy to the fact – that people on the outside have delivered food and meds to people on the inside through windows on the ground floor offices or restrooms.

Well now, the restroom windows, as of today, have all (including the first floor, which is one level up) have been secured shut with screws on either side of the windows, rendering them impossible to open, the screw heads lopped off. I witnessed the maintenance dudes who were told to do this.

It sickens me to see this happen at our capitol. I love this building and all that it stands for.

People from around this earth visit here, and have always been especially impressed, not only for its beauty, friendliness, and the especially important fact that it is (has been) so accessible to the public.

9/11/01 was a workday at the Capitol for me. The following weeks of that horrible event lead to a less scrutinizing of public access to this building than what is happening now.

When I saw the thousands of fourth graders on their annual springtime tours, I would stop when I could and make it a point to say that, “This is YOUR house”. That IS (or was) what this building was built for.

And now I feel I can’t honestly say that anymore.”

Jacob Wheeler

In addition to shooting videos for The UpTake, Jacob Wheeler is a contributing editor at the progressive political magazine In These Times, publishes the Glen Arbor Sun in his native Michigan, and authored "Between Light and Shadow," a recent book about the Guatemalan adoption industry. Wheeler's stories have appeared in such magazines as the Utne Reader, Earth Island Journal, Rotarian and Teaching Tolerance magazine, and newspapers including the San Francisco Chronicle and Christian Science Monitor. He speaks fluent Spanish, German and Danish.

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