A large, multi-union coalition gathered near the "Fighting" Bob LaFollette bust on the first floor of the East Gallery in the Wisconsin State Capitol this afternoon. Wearing gray T-shirts with the words "Wisconsin United for Worker's Rights" printed in red across an outline of the state, they sat down and started to sing, "We shall not be moved," just after the official building shut-down at 4 p.m.
"We know we have a right to peaceful protest," said Candice Owley, a Milwaukee nurse with the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals. "We don't believe they should be removing us from the State Capitol."
Owley said those in her group planned to follow directions outlined by a grassroots group inside the capitol that has been preparing for today. The goal: to keep the protest peaceful, and allow those who wish to continue to keep vigil in protest of Governor Scott Walker's budget repair bill to remain in the building.
Law enforcement officials from across the state were visible inside the Capitol today, as people lined up to get into the building. At one point in the afternoon, police were thinning the crowd inside by allowing one person back in for every two who came out.
But as of 5:00 p.m., protesters who choose to stay had been moved from the ground floor Capitol Rotunda to the first floor, where they crammed into the space. Law enforcement blocked most entrances, directing those who chose to leave peacefully toward the State Street door. Police approached no one, standing on as protesters shouted "Whose house? Our house!" inside and outside of the King Street entrance.
Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney looked on from the second floor above the LaFollette bust. Visibly tired, Mahoney explained in an interview that he hoped people would vacate the building, and that police would be issuing citations "only if we have to in extreme measures."
Some were prepared to face the consequences of a citation and fine, while others were not. "I will go if I'm asked to go. [Police] have been so nice and I don't want to do it to them," said Karen Craig of Madison, at the Capitol this afternoon for a Knit-in and Craft-in against Walker's budget bill. Craig has not missed a day of the 2-week-old protest.
Linda and David Rolnick of Madison, like many others, said they would wait and see whether they would stay or go. Linda Rolnick, who has been at the Capitol for 13 of the 14 days, said, "When Mr. Walker made the [budget bill] announcement on February 12th, we got a kick in the gut and the response from everyone has just been great. At least we know we're not in this alone."
Clergy from all faiths part of the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice said they were prepared to be the first arrested today, said Jerry Folk, a retired Lutheran Pastor and Executive Director for the Wisconsin Council of Churches.
There was plenty of instruction for those who were preparing to stay, no matter what.
A medic named Molly addressed the crowd around 3:00 p.m. with advice on how to handle any potential injury as a result of arrest, and how to get help if hurt. People who were staying were advised to remove contact lenses, those who were asthmatic were urged make sure to have an inhaler handy and make a fist if handcuffed so the handcuffs wouldn't be put on too tight.
"I'm not trying to freak people out," she said. "But if anything happens, I just want to make sure everyone is safe."
Marshalls handed out Affinity Group Arrestee support forms to give to friends and documents advising the protesters of their rights. Many seated on the floor near LaFollette's bust were passing around a Sharpie marker and writing a labor law hotline number on their arms.