By Bill Glauber of the Journal Sentinel Feb. 27, 2011
Madison — The doors of the state Capitol may have been shut at 4 p.m. but the protests continued Sunday night as several hundred demonstrators remained on the first floor of the ornate rotunda and vowed to continue their vigil against Gov. Scott Walker’s budget-repair bill.
Police stood by and watched as demonstrators chanted and sang, with some protesters providing an impromptu drum concert.
Protesters have said they were willing to face what they termed “peaceful arrests” as they tried to maintain their place inside the building.
“We delivered a message to Governor Walker. We’ll continue to be here to kill this bill,” said Peter Rickman, 28, of Neenah, during a news conference.
“This feels like it’s about shutting down the people’s demonstration,” Rabbi Renee Bauer said in calling for demonstrations to continue.
The statehouse occupation began Feb. 15 when hundreds of people lined up to provide testimony to the Joint Finance Committee.
At around 3 a.m. on the Feb. 16, the committee stopped taking testimony but Democrats in the Legislature immediately started holding an informal listening session that went around the clock for days.
“No one had planned to stay here,” said Alex Hanna, 25, a UW-Madison student. “It emerged organically.”
Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney said authorities were trying to work with labor leaders to get people out of the building.
“There is no plan to become confrontational,” he said. “We haven’t seen that in over 40 years.
Alex Hanna, 25, a member of the UW-Madison Teaching Assistants’ Association, called the closure of the building “politically motivated.”
“We’re going to be back in this building,” he said. “It’s the people’s house.”
The state’s Department of Administration had sought to bring a sense of business-as-usual to the Capitol by establishing regular hours. Officials said they were trying to clean the building after nearly two weeks of continuous protests.
There was an air of expectancy throughout the afternoon as demonstrators gathered inside the rotunda. Some came to snap photos of the numerous signs that hung on the walls of the building.
Among the signs: “Please remember this is a peaceful protest.”
“Using a recession created on Wall Street to try to bust unions on Main Street.”
“As Joan Rivers would say, ‘can we tawk?’ ” a reference to union demands that Walker negotiate with them.
At a few minutes past 4 p.m., an announcement came over the sound system: “The Capitol is now closed.”
Scores of demonstrators left the building, while a few hundred made their way to the first floor. They vowed to hold their ground inside the building that has emerged as the focal point of pro-labor demonstrations.
Dena Ohlinger, 22, a University of Wisconsin-Madison student, said for the last week, she had gone to classes and worked during the day and used a yoga mat and blanket while sleeping atop the cold marble floors of the Capitol at night.
“Everyone has been incredible here,” she said. “Regular social barriers have been broken down.”
Blanca Martin, 29, of Stevens Point, said the protests accomplished many things even as the budget-repair bill makes its way through the Legislature. Fourteen Democratic State Senators fled to Illinois to block final passage of the bill.
“We’ve had unity of purpose, unity of spirit,” said Martin. “Everyone who has been here has been transformed for life.”
During the protest, demonstrators organized cleanup details, set up a system of marshals, and brought in food.
“There has never been a cleaner group of protesters or a more public health conscious group of protesters,” said Matt Kearny, 28, a research assistant at UW-Madison.
On his left arm, Kearny had written numbers with a red marker.
“It’s the phone number of a defense attorney, in the event I’m taken into custody,” he said.