When I showed up at the Capitol at 10 am Tuesday to cover the Wisconsin state assembly floor session, I knew I was in for a long day. On the agenda were four joint resolutions, thirty-eight regular session bills and three special session bills. There was also an action planned for the Assembly gallery by defenders of First Amendment rights, which had the potential to disrupt and extend the session.
After dispensing with the ceremonial prayers, introductions and resolutions, the Assembly broke for caucus shortly before noon. I hung back, sitting in the completely empty Assembly chamber writing up some notes. Soon a Capitol tour guide came into the gallery above with a group of about thirty kids and said, "Remember, you can't take pictures in here," at least six times. She kept telling the kids to put their cameras away.
Kids: Why can't we take pictures?
Guide: Because they're in session today.
Kids: But there's nobody in here!
Guide: It's a rule of the gallery and you have to follow it.
Kids: Even though there's nobody in here?
Guide: Yes, it's the rule and there's a reason why but I'm not going into that today.
A few minutes later, she was describing who sits where on the floor:
Guide: There's no reason why the Republicans sit by the windows and the Democrats sit by the doors, they just did it a hundred years ago and it stuck.
Kind of like the rest of the rules of the Assembly. There’s no good reason for them but they were made and they stuck. That’s what members of the public were protesting later in the day when the assembly representatives came back onto the floor at 6:30 pm – rules that seem outdated and arbitrarily enforced.
On November 1, 2011, Wisconsin’s concealed carry law went into effect, and Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald said that carrying a gun into the gallery would be permissible. To demonstrate the absurdity of Assembly rules that prohibit people from using cameras, phones or laptops or holding signs in the gallery while at the same time guns are allowed, dozens of people packed one side of the gallery armed with concealed and unconcealed cameras and signs.
The first bill up for debate was AB 69, the “castle doctrine” bill that, according to its author Majority Leader Scott Suder, “ensures that individuals can safely and securely defend themselves when threatened.” The bill exempts property owners from any criminal or civil liability over the use of deadly force while protecting their home, place of business, car, patio, driveway, front lawn or swimming pool. AB 69 is literally a license to kill.
When Representative Leon Young from Milwaukee stood up and said, “This is a sad day here in Wisconsin,” the gallery erupted with applause and cheers. Speaker Pro Tem Bill Kramer had earlier cautioned “guests” to abide by gallery rules and not be disruptive. At this outburst, he ordered the gallery cleared.
State troopers, Capitol Police and Department of Natural Resources game wardens filed into the gallery and began asking people to leave. Once outside the gallery some people were handcuffed and taken to the basement for processing on the charge of “other conduct prohibited.”
Democratic representatives requested Kramer to rescind his order, saying it was unfair for the whole gallery to be cleared based on the behavior of only some people. Kramer took back the order, saying, “The gallery is for observation. We have public hearings for a reason and that is where you can be heard. We have prohibitions against holding signs and against filming so please put down your signs and cameras. We have prohibitions against showing support or disapproval so I hope you’ll abide by that.”
Then law enforcement began to haul people out for silently holding signs or taking pictures with their cameras. The Progressive’s own Matt Rothschild was arrested for taking a picture of these arrests being made.
A total of eighteen people were arrested and ticketed for offenses that will likely be thrown out in court.
People feel so strongly about protecting and defending their ability to record and document the goings-on in the Assembly because corporate media is doing such a poor job of it. If you’re not at the Capitol on a regular basis, you would find it difficult to believe the impunity with which the rightwing is shoving their racist, sexist, corporatist agenda down the throats of the people of this state.
At 11:00 pm., an amendment to a non-controversial, bipartisan bill that was unanimously voted out of committee was moved that would eliminate affirmative action for African American, Hispanic, American Indian and Hmong students in higher education grants. That sparked more than two hours of outraged filibustering by Democrats, followed by a break for caucus. By 4:00 a.m., Republicans were trying to flush the Dems out of caucus by asking for a quorum call.
But that’s for another post.
Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and as the President of the Dane County TimeBank.