It’s been more than two years since Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill stripping collective bargaining rights from most public employees. The new law sparked massive protests at the Wisconsin State Capitol because many saw it as an attack on unions.
While most demonstrators eventually went away, a small group did not. They arrive at the building most weekdays to sing anti-Walker and pro-union songs.
On a recent day, more than 100 people were gathered in a circle on the Capitol lawn, tapping cowbells and singing a localized version of “This Land Is Your Land.”
The Solidarity Sing-along has been held at the Capitol most weekdays at noon for the past two years, though it’s usually held inside the building.
Ron Edwards, a 68-year-old retired state worker, says he comes here every day because he’s still angry at the governor.
“I’m trying everything to get rid of Mr. Walker,” Edwards says. “What he’s done since he took over is took our collective bargaining away, he took everything away.”
Earlier this summer, the Walker administration apparently grew tired of the protests and ordered Capitol police to start arresting people. The crackdown began after a federal judge ruled that groups with more than 20 participants must get a permit.
Since July 24, more than 300 people have been arrested, booked and ticketed. Edwards contends he doesn’t need a permit to sing in the Capitol and that the group is merely exercising its free speech rights.
“We won’t get a permit because the First Amendment is our permit,” he says.
But Walker disagrees.
“If you want to sing in the Capitol you can,” he says. “If you want to protest in the Capitol you can. The only requirement is you have to get a permit if it involves a certain amount of people.”
Steven Bray, who has been arrested six times so far, says he’s now no stranger to handcuffs. Each time he’s been arrested, he says, he’s been taken to the police office in the basement of the building and issued a $200 ticket.
Like most people, he’s been charged with assembling without a permit. But Bray refuses to pay the fines and will argue all six of his tickets in court later this year. Fortunately, he says, his experience with the police has been relatively positive.
“They’ve been pretty polite to me,” Bray says. “They’ve been pretty rough on some of the others.”
Watching the protests on this day was Rick Shook He says he doesn’t have a stake in the fight, but he does think arresting these protesters is going too far.
“I think the whole thing is a little bit ridiculous,” Shook says. “Nobody’s harming anybody. If they want to come here and sing, more power to them.”
So, it appears to be a stalemate.
The protesters say they’re not going to apply for a permit, and Gov. Walker isn’t changing his position, so arrests here are likely to continue at least until January, when a federal judge is slated to hear the issue of protesters being arrested at the Capitol.