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The People Rule: Activists Hold the Capitol Building in Madison

SOMEWHERE ABOVE MILWAUKEE (FDL) – I’m sorry I was unable to finish my reporting from inside the Capitol tonight, but within about 20 minutes of the order from the Capitol Police to “close” the building, you could tell where everything was going. The protesters were organized, on the floor, ready to call the bluff off the police. If they were leaving, they would have to be physically escorted from the building. And the Capitol Police, and especially the Dane County Sheriff, seemingly had no interest in doing that.

So the 4:00pm CT deadline came and went. Then it was 4:15. And 4:30. And nobody moved. The police either had no orders or the order to do nothing. The crowd was enormous, with hundreds planning to get arrested. They were chanting for unity, to have all protesters come up to the second floor, even the five local yahoos who clearly wanted to get arrested and make a spectacle of themselves. Only one of those five were actually present for the protests from the beginning, by the way.

The protesters were organized. They were getting nonviolence training. They were scrawling the phone numbers of lawyers on their arms. They were getting support from Democratic members of the state Assembly, who were on hand and planned to stay with them as long as it took. “This is civil disobedience at its finest,” said one, wearing the orange “Assembly Democrats” shirt that has been their trademark since this started two weeks ago.

The Dane County sheriff said shortly after 4:00 that he saw no reason for any protesters to be ejected for public safety or public health reasons. In the 14 days since the protesters held the Capitol, there have been ZERO arrests due to their conduct. Local police and firefighters had been uniting with the protesters. They were on hand and possibly ready to get arrested as well. I saw a firefighter from Madison, in full uniform, at the scene.

About 40 minutes in, a spokeswoman for the Capitol Police told the press they would not be removing anyone from the building, and that they were working with the organizers to arrive at a solution. Finally, a couple hours later, it came down: the protesters would be able to stay the night.

Protesters will be able to sleep on the ground floor, as cleaning is done of the upper floors. Tubbs said there had been no decisions made yet on what the policy would be for successive nights.

“There will be no arrests, as we said before, there will be no use of force,” Tubbs said. “We want the people to continue to cooperate and work within the guidelines and the laws of the state of Wisconsin. So there’ll be no one asked to leave the Capitol tonight.”

This is an incredible achievement for the students, teaching assistants, union members, progressive activists, and leaders of the new labor/progressive movement in Wisconsin. They called the bluff of law enforcement, they called the bluff of Scott Walker – who had total control over shutting down the building – and they won. They won because of unity of purpose and unity of action. They won because of their incredible composure and relationship with public safety officers over the past two weeks. They won for working families. They won for employees. They won for the union. They won for Wisconsin.

And they may have won their first convert in the Republican Senate: not confirmed, but the strong rumor is that Sen, Dale Schultz (R) will vote no on the budget repair bill when it comes up for a vote. This was largely expected; Schultz has been trying to compromise on the bill. So that’s one, with two more Republicans needed to stop the bill in the Senate.

And that’s the first of what I believe will be many victories in Wisconsin (more on that later). It would not have happened at all without the tremendous leadership inside the Capitol. Their courage is inspiring, and I hope it’s contagious.

UPDATE: The Wisconsin State Journal puts it at 600 activists staying overnight. This is amazing:

Throughout the afternoon as the 4 p.m. deadline to clear the Capitol drew close, speakers spoke emotionally about the need for nonviolence.

“I have felt the sting of hatred so deep that it almost ripped my soul in half,” protester Damon Terrell said in tears as he addressed the crowd Sunday. “Those that feel that same anger, that would be torn apart by that same hatred of their fellow man, try one thing for me. Don’t do it. Be stronger than yourself. Rise above your own emotions.”

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David Dayen

David Dayen