My parents were arrested yesterday. They are 85 and 80 years old. Their crime was singing in the rotunda of the Wisconsin State Capitol without a permit.
Tom and Joan Kemble moved to Madison two years ago when they realized that the steady march of time meant it would not be long before their physical ability to tend to their 20-acre organic farm they had so lovingly cultivated for three decades would decline.
It was difficult for them to leave the life, friends, fellowships and activist causes they had been involved with for the more than 50 years they had called Glastonbury, CT, home. It was also difficult for them to leave the region where three of their children and five of their ten grandchildren live.
But they were moving closer to two other daughters and the other five grandchildren. They were also looking forward to participating in the rich musical and political life that Madison has to offer.
Dad now plays the French horn in three local bands and orchestra, sings in his church choir and is a devoted participant in the noontime Solidarity Sing Along at the capitol.
Mom also attends the Sing Along and is active with several local causes, including racial justice, environmental and anti-war initiatives.
Before they moved here, Mom thought that my description of post-2010 political conditions in Wisconsin as proto-fascist was overblown rhetoric. But over the past two years, my parents have attended numerous public hearings and legislative sessions at the capitol, where they have seen first-hand the corporate control of state government and the authoritarian use of force employed to back it up.
Now Mom says, “I know what you mean.”
Yesterday both Mom and Dad felt what it means when dozens of Capitol Police, state troopers, Department of Justice criminal investigation officers, and DNR game wardens conducted a mass arrest of 22 people who were singing peacefully in the rotunda.
The Solidarity Sing Along began in March, 2011, as a way to maintain an oppositional voice to Scott Walker’s government and policies after they rammed through Act 10, the law that all but busted public sector unions in the state. The law is being challenged and is still working its way through federal and state courts.
People who came to the capitol to sing in those early days did so out of a deep sense of frustration that the legitimate concerns of hundreds of thousands of people in the state were simply disregarded by the Republican controlled legislature and governor. If they had no power to influence legislation through their elected representatives, they would bring their concerns directly to the public forum that is the capitol rotunda in the form of song.
Over the years, the repertoire of the Sing Along has grown to 52+ songs with original lyrics written about the issue of the day. The songs communicate information about policies that have been adopted by the Walker Administration, and express the humane values that these policies trash. People visiting the capitol during the Sing Along get an entertaining lesson in civics and current affairs.
Until July 22 of last year, the Capitol Police force was led by Chief Charles Tubbs, who was well versed in community policing philosophy and methods. He had a good working relationship with participants in the Sing Along, and never enforced an old administrative rule on the books that said permits were required for groups assembling in the capitol, because no public safety issues arose from the peaceful singing activities of the group. The only violent incidents involving the Sing Along that occurred under his watch were attacks on singers initiated by rightwing gun lobbyists.
But the Walker Administration finds the Sing Along to be an annoying thorn in its side and wants it to go away, so last summer they hired David Erwin to replace Tubbs as chief.
Erwin, a former Marine, was serving as Walker’s personal bodyguard in the Dignitary Protection Unit prior to stepping up to the job on July 23, 2012.
Erwin came into office vowing to force the Sing Along to apply for permits or be evicted. One year, a federal lawsuit and hundreds of dismissed citations later, the Sing Along is still here. Chief Erwin may have reason to be concerned about his one-year performance evaluation. All his attempts to intimidate singers and remove them from the building have failed.
Perhaps that is why he decided to turn a sound weapon on members of the public last week. On Thursday Capitol Police brought out a mobile LRAD unit with sharp blasts of high decibel sirens to interrupt the gathering and announce that the assembly had been declared unlawful and that if people didn’t leave the building they were subject to arrest. It was not clear who, in particular, the announcement was intended for.
Was it the families milling around waiting for the tour?
Was it the gaggle of Republican legislative aides lurking in the shadows waiting to see some action?
Was it the people holding signs?
The members of the press who were there to report on the anticipated crackdown?
Police weren’t answering questions.
No arrests were made last week. None took place on Monday or Tuesday of this week either.
But yesterday a notice reserving a large room on the 4th floor of the capitol for the Capitol Police was posted and people who regularly practice their right to dissent in the building had a feeling that this would turn out to be a command center for mass arrests. Turns out they were right.
About 200 people – including many reporters, legislators and their aides – were in the rotunda when the clock struck noon and people began singing as they have done for more than 700 consecutive weekdays. About 15 minutes in to the sing the LRAD unit blasted the unlawful assembly warning, and Officer Davis placed a signboard on the floor of the rotunda with the declaration spelled out.
Some of the singers chose to comply with the order to disperse and took their singing – and their signs warning anyone visiting the building that they were in danger of being arrested – outside the building.
Then the arrests began. One by one twenty-two people were asked to leave and/or stop singing, and when they refused they were put into handcuffs and escorted to the basement by police officers. Groups of three to five officers would approach a person, tell them to leave and then arrest them.
Arrestees were taken down to the basement where a process of having their photograph taken, their belongings and their persons searched and their personal information entered into a computer system and then onto a hand-written ticket ensued. Department of Justice criminal investigators seemed to be directing the process, although when asked why they were there they claimed to be “just helping out.”
The arrests were being directed by Capitol Police Lieutenant Bob Sloey from a second-floor balcony. He communicated to Officer Davis by radio and pointed out who next to arrest. Lt. Sloey was joined on the balcony by Department of Administration Chief Legal Counsel Greg Murray for much of the time.
After making their way through the usual suspects of people who have previously been cited – unsuccessfully - for exercising their freedom of speech in the building, they moved on to others who continued to sing.
That’s when they started going for the elders, including my parents.
It was awkward to be part of the swarm of journalists crowding around my own parents as the police were closing in on them.
When Mom was surrounded by cops who were handcuffing the woman next to her and Mom looked her in the eye singing the verse of We Shall Overcome that says, “We are not afraid,” I burst into tears. The courage, care for her friend and incredibly centered and peaceful defiance she showed in the face of the overblown police action was deeply moving.
And when Mom and Dad were handcuffed and led downstairs singing the words, “Walker won’t be governor, Walker won’t be governor, Walker won’t be governor someday,” my daughter’s heart swelled with pride.
The devotion of my parents and others who frequent the Sing Along to holding open a public space for free expression of political speech is truly remarkable. Though critics and rightwing politicians and bloggers characterize them as children having a tantrum after not getting their way, they are truly on the frontlines of defending civil liberties in a state and nation where they are under fierce attack.
My parents’ lifelong dedication to social justice and building a more humane society has led them to this place. In an interview with a local radio station after the arrests, Dad told the interviewer that he felt “elated” and that he was “proud to be among what I would call distinguished people who have been arrested previous to me.”
Yesterday was the first time either of them had been arrested.
It might not be the last.
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.