Wisconsin Cracks Down on Singing Protesters; Arrests Reach 120 And Climbing

Story and video for The UpTake by Tracey Pollock

Madison, Wis.
About 30 protestors were arrested at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison Tuesday, marking the fourth day of mass arrests at a singing standoff between protesters and conservative Gov. Scott Walker. The total number of citations that have been handed out for singing without a permit is now about 120. The arrests spring from a revision in Capitol access rules that requires groups to attain a permit to hold demonstrations in the Capitol, a Republican response to the occupation of the Capitol by anti-Walker protesters and labor groups in 2011.

The pro-labor sing-along began in March 2011 and small groups of singing protesters have gathered over the Noon hour almost daily ever since.

Judy Miner, former director of Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice said the sing-along began when many people energized by the 2011 protests decided to keep a presence going by getting together and singing.

“I see the sing-along as a social movement that is objecting to Walker’s policies,” Miner says. “There are so many policies that have been reversed since Walker came in that we have been working towards for decades — it’s important to keep being out here, to be a part of this movement. We are going to change it.”

The number of people involved in the sing-along has grown substantially since the arrests began last Wednesday. Police also have amped up their action: On Tuesday, Capitol police began arresting people within minutes of the start of the sing-along, ordering the protesters to cease singing (ironically, they were in the middle of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”) or face arrest.

The arrests continued throughout the hour, with many people continuing to sing while they were being led away in handcuffs to receive citations. One woman who was arrested at the beginning of the sing-along told Capitol police that if she was going to be arrested, her young boy would need to remain with her. Police accommodated her by taking her away in handcuffs, with her young boy tethered to her side. A retired pastor also collapsed during the arrests and was taken to a hospital.

(UpDate: There were no arrests during Wednesday’s sing-along, reportedly because a local TV station had taken out a permit for an event in the Rotunda).

Monday was the only day since last Wednesday when no arrests were made. That was because the “Solidarity Sing-along” had to be moved outside the Capitol after a rival conservative group, calling itself the Scott Walker Solidarity Singers, acquired a permit to hold their own event in the Capitol. They held their event to show how easy it is to get a free permit, poking fun at the anti-Walker activists.

About 30 people showed up for the counter-sing-along, as Walker supporters belted out My Country ‘Tis of Thee and other patriotic standards.

The number of folks involved in the protest sing-along had dropped to about 20 a day after two years of a daily presence at the Capitol and the sing-along seemed to be on the verge of coming to an end. But earlier this month, a federal judge signed a temporary injunction in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) challenging the law that requires groups as small as four to attain a permit before holding any type of demonstration in the Capitol Rotunda. The judge argued that the law impedes the free speech rights of citizens and “create(s) an extraordinary chilling effect.”

The temporary injunction sets 20 as the number in groups required to get a permit until the lawsuit can be decided. The permitting process requires groups to pre-register to hold a demonstration but protesters, believing that free speech protections are on their side, continue to ignore the permit process.

“The Capitol police are enforcing this rule solely because they can — it’s a show of power,” said Larry Dupuis, legal director for ACLU Wisconsin. ” I think it’s unnecessary and not a security issue. The same thing has been happening for over two years without disrupting the Capitol. There is no practical use for this rule.”

Before Capitol Police began arresting people last week for singing without a permit, they had been either mailing citations to protestors or showing up on people’s door steps with citations.

“The Capitol Police are clamping down in a way that is completely unwarranted, completely unacceptable, and I sure hope they will settle back into the kind of peaceful, public engagement that was the case up until a year ago,” said Jonathan Rosenblum, an attorney representing some singers and a participant in the sing-along.

Each arrest comes with a $200 citation that holds the same weight as a traffic ticket, leaving many to wonder why they are being led out of the Rotunda in handcuffs.

“The most important part about the sing-along is that it gives us a reason to celebrate,” said Brian Standing, who has been participating in the sing-along since it began. “It keeps our spirits up. It doesn’t sound like a big thing but it’s really important. It gives us a chance to vent our frustration with the state government, Scott Walker and the Republicans who have bought and sold our state…to find out that you’re not alone and that there are other groups that carry the progressive tradition. To express those feelings in song is a cornerstone. To think of all those people who sang those songs before you and struggled…

“I feel like we are a part of that history.”

Comments are closed.