Following two judges' court orders telling the governor he has to stop locking us out, the public has free, unfettered access to the Capitol building in Madison again ...
Well, sort of.
You have to pass through TSA-type security, empty your pockets, open your purse, and submit to a full-body wanding by state troopers before going in.
There's also a list of things you can't bring in posted outside the doors: Item one -- animals/snakes.
Apparently our public officials have concerns we never considered. And to think we've been blithely strolling through our statehouse, heedless of the dangers posed by possible snakes, all these years.
It is more than debatable whether the whole security apparatus at the Capitol is in any way warranted by the recent, historic protests in Madison. Despite hosting rallies with 10,000, 50,000 and upwards of 100,000 citizens, there have been virtually no arrests (one guy was brought in for exposing himself across the street from the Capitol, a state trooper told me) and no violence.
But fears for public safety and fantasies about out-of-control pro-democracy thugs have been front and center in the rightwing response to the protests -- from Fox News's ridiculous footage of union guys getting rough with counter-demonstrators on a palm-tree-lined street in California, to last week's hearings as the state went to court to justify its failure to obey the first court order to keep the Capitol open to the public. Even if Republican legislators and staff weren't actually threatened, they felt threatened by the chanting and drumming protesters in the Capitol and outside their windows, the state's witnesses testified.
Then there was the bullet incident. The state kicked off the last day of the hearing with testimony from Capitol Police about 41 rounds of ammunition found scattered on the sidewalk outside the capitol building. It was weird, but in the end it played no role in the Judge Albert's decision to reopen the building. In issuing his order, the judge suggested that it would make sense to prohibit people from bringing sleeping bags, pillows, and other bedding into the building. He said nothing about weapons -- or snakes.
In telling the protesters who had been sleeping in the Capitol to leave, he made it clear he was asking the state's Department of Administration to revert to its usual policy of keeping the Capitol open to the public during normal business hours. Here is the actual text of the order:
"By 8:00 a.m. March 8, 2011, DOA shall open the State Capitol to all members of the public and rescind the access policies put in place February 28, 2011 and replace them with the access policies in effect January 28, 2011."
Remember January 28? That was back when you could wander through the Capitol through the open doors on all sides. That situation has not been restored.
It's interesting how little impact the sensational bullet incident seems to have had, actually.
It turns out that the bullets weren't only scattered around the Capitol. Madison Police found multiple rounds of live ammunition scattered on the stairs and in a second-floor men's bathroom in the City County Building, just a block from the Capitol square, according to police spokesman Joel DeSpain (since Capitol Police found 41 bullets from a 50-round box of ammunition, this could clear up where the rest of the bullets ended up. But DeSpain said the police were not ready to release either the number of rounds or the type of bullets found until they complete an investigation).
But "they were all found the same day, within one block," DeSpain says. It's unclear if the police investigation will go much further, he added, since "there was no weapon found, and no threats were made toward anyone." Madison police have frequently found ammunition in parks, playgrounds, and other public areas of the city, he added.
"The type of ammunition found here is very cheap," he said. "We don't know if someone just dropped it or if someone was trying to make a political statement. But at this point we don't even have a crime."
The one thing the bullets provided was some sort of rationale in an otherwise peaceful week for enforcing security precautions worthy of an orange alert day at the airport right after 9/11.
Oh, and a welcome distraction for Republicans who have been facing crushing public pressure to listen to their constituents and abandon their unified "no negotiations" stance toward Democrats who don't believe destroying collective bargaining for state workers is a reasonable step.
I went through the whole security rigmarole twice before getting into the senate chambers to watch our democracy in action today. The senate calendar for Tuesday, March 8 was dominated by 14 separate resolutions offered by majority leader Scot Fitzgerald -- imposing penalties and costs on each of the 14 missing Democratic senators "for being absent without leave."
Besides coming up with new ways to punish their Democratic colleagues, the senate Republicans didn't get too much official business done. That's because they spent most of the day meeting in a closed-door caucus, while rumors swirled about members of the Republican coalition who are cracking under pressure from constituents and recall drives to abandon the governor's no-compromise stance.
"Republicans should be willing to meet Democrats halfway on aspects of collective bargaining that have little or no monetary impact, longtime Republican Sen. Rob Cowles said Monday evening," reports the Green Bay Press-Gazette, "Cowles, R-Allouez, said Republicans already got the lion's share of what they were looking for from unions in pension and health care contributions, and a compromise with Democrats on the rest of Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill is expected soon."
Cue the snakes.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Big Saturday Rally in Madison -- Michael Moore, Michelle Shocked Praise Wisconsin Protesters."
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter.