The news traveled fast. Within half an hour of the Wisconsin senate Republicans' vote to end collective bargaining for public employees, the capitol building in Madison was jammed with citizens protesting the state senate's sudden move.
"It's the most disgraceful thing I've seen in my 30 years of working in government," Madison mayor Dave Cieslewiscz said, as he squeezed through the crowd on the second floor of the building, among the thousands of people cramming the capitol rotunda, stairways, and upper floors.
"This makes it abundantly clear it was never about balancing the budget. It was about union-busting. For them to pass this bill, literally in the dark of night, without notice -- it's outrageous."
Cieslewicz said he had just talked to Susan Riseling, the chief of police for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and urged her not to help the governor clear the capitol building. When the state contacted Madison police chief Noble Wray, "they asked him if he'd help clear out the building and I'm proud to say he said he would not participate," the mayor added.
"They knew they were going to do this today, and they knew there would be this reaction," the mayor added. "This type of audacity -- you could choke on it."
The outpouring at the capitol was immediate and intense.
After weeks of protests, historic rallies, and 14 Democratic senators staying away from the state to deprive the senate of a quorum to pass Governor Scott Walker's hugely controversial "budget repair bill," people were shocked to get the news at the very end of the working day Wednesday that the senate Republicans had voted on the union-busting provision in the bill all by itself. Since that made it a non-budgetary matter, they could take the vote without the 14 democrats being present. Never mind that Walker had repeatedly claimed it wasn't about unions, but about saving the state money.
A long line formed outside the single open entrance -- at King Street -- as people waited to pass through the new, cumbersome security system. But the capitol police soon began opening more doors and abandoning the TSA style pat-downs. As waves of people poured in from all sides, a huge cheer went up in the rotunda. The drumming, cymbal-clapping, chanting crowd was back. The capitol looked like it did at the very beginning of the historic protests against Scott Walker's attacks on working people in the state.
It was a very diverse crowd -- all ages, races, and professions. And a remarkably polite one. Cheers went up for the police for doing a tough job, rounds of "Thank you!" followed informational announcements. Among the signs: "Cops for Labor" "Beloit Firefighters" "Proud to Be an Educator" and "Give Up Union Busting For Lent."
I saw my daughter's first-grade teacher, right next to her gym teacher, sitting against a marble pillar on the second floor.
When you see your gym teacher at an event like this, you know you are seeing the whole community.
Their union leadership was holding a meeting upstairs to discuss another teacher walk-out. "We sprinted over from school as soon as we heard the news," they told me.
People just had to come to the capitol -- they had to be part of the crowd taking in this latest, audacious assault on our democracy, and supporting each other. There was a feeling unity, and of being at a big, big party where you know a lot of people -- friends, family members, folks you see every day all your life.
I saw a neighbor who said, "I'm sure you've never heard me talk about politics before this -- well that's all over."
The Truly Remarkable Loon -- a local juggler and children's entertainer -- was there.
A young woman wearing a cow hat, Molly Leimontas, who just got back from teaching English overseas and is applying to grad school in social work was there with her mom, Suzanne Leimontas, a public health nurse, who was upset about the cuts to Medicaid in Scott Walker's budget. "These are the people we advocate for," she said. "I'm here because of the attacks on the rights of women, the environment, and collective bargaining," she added, "but most of all because I'm worried about what will happen to our future."
Fred Clark, Democratic assemblyman from Baraboo, whom I spoke with last week when he hopped out his office window on the first floor of the capitol to meet with constituents during the lock-out, squeezed through the crowd to meet with his colleagues in the assembly.
"This is astonishing," he said. "We just watched democracy hijacked by the leadership." Clark pointed out that the vote was illegal, since there was no 24-hour notice as required by Wisconsin's open-meetings law, and no chance to read the bill.
"We're seeing Wisconsin democracy beaten into the ground," he said. "Every day it seems like it couldn't get worse. And then it gets worse."
"We'll be evaluating every option to stop this," he added, as he joined other democrats in their orange solidarity shirts in a meeting room.
A crowd gathered outside the assembly chambers, where the union-busting measure will be taken up tomorrow morning.
While thousands of people packed the rotunda and second floor, chanting, ringing bells, beating drums, and generally lending the building the feeling of a huge Mardi Gras parade, capitol police chief Charles Tubbs stood in the midst of about 100 mostly college-age protesters, many of whom led the sit-in at the capitol which ended when a judge ordered the reopening of the building to the public and the departure of protesters who were sleeping there after hours.
The college kids were holding a "democratic discussion" -- taking turns with a megaphone to voice their views on whether to sit in or leave peacefully again.
I asked Chief Tubbs how he could possibly clear out the building when there were several thousand people there -- especially without the cooperation of the Madison and UW police forces.
"We're not talking about clearing out the building. We're talking about voluntary compliance," he said.
Using the same network that persuaded people to come out peacefully last week, Tubbs said he planned to spread the word.
But how do you spread the word to 5,000 people?
"I'm a patient man," he said.
By the way, I wondered, what about all that TSA type security -- isn't that a violation of the judge's order for full public access as existed on January 28 (before this whole thing began)?
"Right now we're dealing with a security concern. Once that concern has been resolved ... "
That is the bullets that were sprinkled around outside, resulting in a going-nowhere investigation.
But I digress.
The problem Tubbs had the protesters working on was whether they would leave peacefully or be arrested and what that means for the movement, etc. etc. -- never mind that they were a small group and downstairs were thousands of citizens making a great deal of noise and not showing any signs of moving.
Finally, Ed Sadlowski, a staff representative for AFSCME council 40, wearing his union's trademark green T-shirt, pulled out his own bullhorn at the back of the line.
"I'm tired of waiting to speak," he announced. "Forget walking out of here -- we did that Sunday," he said. "I'm staying."
The extremely accomodating consensus-building group then instructed people to form lines on each side of the room and continue the conversation on two different bullhorns.
When I went over to talk to Sadlowski, he was happy to elaborate.
He was unimpressed with the whole go-peacefully-and-make-a-good-impression argument:
"We were marched out of here once already by the AFL-CIO and some other morons -- I can tell you [Democratic assemblyman] Brett Hulsey led the march out of here. That's not how you lead people. Making concessions to the governor is not how you lead. I negotiate contracts all over the state. These cuts are going to devastate people. People need to get their shit together."
"They don't have a clue what they have on their hands here by way of a people's uprising," Sadlowski added. "Someone called me from the AFL to say, 'How's the mobilization going?' This is not a mobilization -- it's an uprising!"
Sadlowski and six other people were arrested when the senate tried to vote on the original budget repair bill, he said.
'We stopped the vote on the first day in the Senate. We had 80 people in the gallery on February 17. That was before the Democrats left town. They were still here. The people were the ones who stopped them."
As he spoke he was looking around.
"We really need to get into the gallery. It's not going to do any good to be out here. I know there are some other doors in."
As I left the capitol, debate was still going on about being arrested. Piles of bedding had materialized outside the assembly chambers. Downstairs, a guy was holding up a map of the capitol drawn in sharpie on a pizza box. Food was coming in one door, a medical station was set up down the hall, he explained. On Thursday morning people needed to go across the street to the Risser building to stop bussed-in Republican supporters from slipping into a tunnel to fill up the assembly chamber for the vote -- the way they did when Scott Walker gave his budget address to a chamber packed with supporters who snuck in, avoiding the crowd of people protesting outside.
Snowmen holding protests signs posed dramatically all over the capitol lawn. Someone had scratched out huge letters spelling BULLSHIT in the snow.
Cars were circling the building setting up a constant din of honking.
Many of the horns played the now-familiar rhythm: "Show me what democracy looks like," and the cars around them responded "This is what democracy looks like."
It sure does.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Bullets, Snakes, and other Security Red Herrings As Wisconsin Republicans Scramble."
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter.