WI GOP to WI Women: Sit Down and Shut Up

Along with many others, I was shocked by what transpired in the Wisconsin State Senate last Wednesday. The clearly unhinged State Senate President Mike Ellis abruptly cut off debate about a very controversial—and not-especially-popular—ultrasound bill that had been introduced on June 4 and had had only one public hearing less than two days later.

Senator Fred Risser (D-Madison), the longest-serving state legislator in the country, said: “I’ve been in the Legislature over 50 years, through different majorities and different minorities, and I have never experienced the abuse of power by the majority party that I experienced today. The arrogance shown by the Republican Majority today is unprecedented.” Given what Sen. Risser has already witnessed from this legislature, that is really saying something.

I was so appalled—not just by what was being done (which was no surprise), but by how it was being done—that I felt compelled to be at the capitol the next day to witness what would happen to the bill in the State Assembly. Before heading up to gallery, I went to the Solidarity Sing Along at noon in the rotunda to bolster my spirits—it always has that effect.

Toward the end of the sing along, I stopped singing and put tape over my mouth to signify having been silenced in the way this bill was being rammed with lightning speed through the legislature. Just putting the tape over my mouth brought me to tears, because it drove home the indignity of being silenced, of being excluded from discussion of this intensely personal issue.

Capitol Police in the west gallery of the Assembly.
Photo by Leslie Amsterdam

When I arrived in the south gallery, I saw more than half a dozen capitol police in the west gallery. A couple were in the south gallery as well. Clearly the intent was to intimidate. Then I saw that the spectators with tape over their mouths in the west gallery were being told to remove it. Apparently taped mouths constitute a “public display or demonstration.”

That’s me on the left. Photo by Rebecca Kemble

It was maybe 10 minutes or so before a red-jacketed page (who I strongly suspect likes her job) told those of us in the south gallery that we had to take the tape off our mouths or leave. We were handed a small sheet of paper (about 2-1/2 x 4 inches) with type too small for me to read listing the Assembly Gallery Rules. One of my friends wryly pointed out to the page that reading the rules violates the rules, as reading printed materials is prohibited.

Rep. Melissa Sargent
Photo by Leslie Amsterdam

Meanwhile, on the Assembly floor, discussion began about AB216, which prohibits the state health program from covering abortions and allows religious organizations to deny contraception coverage. Rep. Melissa Sargent (D-Madison) spoke about a woman who had had eight children and then was told that having another child would endanger her life. So for the sake of her family, and in consultation with them and her physician, and after having sought and received dispensation from the Catholic Church, she procured the contraception that would prevent a life-threatening pregnancy. Under AB216 that woman would not have been able to procure what she needed to protect her life. At the end of her testimony, Rep. Sargent revealed that the woman in the story was her grandmother.

I listened (with glee, I confess) when Rep. Janet Bewley (D-Ashland) said, “I do not see vasectomy anywhere in this legislation. I don’t hear anyone talking about denying a man the right to have that procedure covered. … I’m not sure why we are so focused on women. … I’m waiting for the day when we can have your anatomy on trial.”

During this and the often moving testimony of other Democratic legislators, many GOP representatives were talking, milling around, or just absent, as though nothing of any significance was happening. A confab of representatives was huddled next to the Speaker’s podium. As a first-time visitor, I found it confusing and chaotic. While minority leader Rep. Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) told about a college friend who was raped, Speaker Pro Tem Bill Kramer, whose job it is to see that decorum is maintained, was laughing and joking around with other legislators. When Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point) pointedly asked the Speaker if he was listening, he shrugged, as if to say “What’s the big deal?”

Finally, Rep. Terese Berceau (D-Madison) requested a roll call because, you know, “this is important stuff.” Apparently, it’s not enough for GOP legislators to ram through their anti-woman legislation with lightning speed. They have to do it cavalierly, without even pretending to care how it will affect the women and families of this state. It reminded me of a rape victim being laughed at and dismissed by her rapist. Seriously.

When Rep. Sandy Pasch (D-Shorewood) described the bill’s author as “seriously out of touch with the reality of women,” a small smattering of applause broke out from some of the spectators in the west gallery. This unseemly outburst was quickly stifled by Speaker Kramer with a bigger outburst of his own. Stopping the assembly proceedings so that he could castigate the evildoers, he ordered that an entire row of spectators be removed from the gallery, not just those who had clapped, but everyone in the second row, including Rep. Bewley’s husband.

Sara Andrews being removed from the gallery in handcuffs.
Photo by Leslie Amsterdam

Sara Andrews committed the same unforgivable transgression as Rep. Bewley’s husband. She complied when told to remove the tape, opting then to put her hands over her mouth. She didn’t clap when others did because she knew it was against the rules. But having committed the grave folly of sitting in the second row, she was told she had to leave by the Capitol Police. Feeling she was being unfairly treated, she replied that if they wanted her to leave they would have to arrest her. And they did. I watched in disbelief as she was taken out of the gallery in handcuffs. I started to have that unreal feeling, like I was in a waking nightmare. I think it was at that point that I started shaking.

After two hours of holding my hands over my mouth and crying on and off, I had to leave because I had another commitment. I’m not sure how much more I could have endured in any case. When I left, they hadn’t started talking about AB206, the ultrasound bill. However, since then I have watched videos of what occurred after I left. One of the most moving videos was that of Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Middleton), who described the painful experience of deciding to terminate an unsuccessful pregnancy. She concluded: “Some decisions do not belong to you. You can’t have them. You just can’t. You can’t hurt people this way. … What you’re doing is cruel, absolutely cruel.”

I’m so proud of the brave fighting women legislators of Wisconsin—Senator Kathleen Vinehout, Representatives Chris Taylor, Melissa Sargent, Sondy Pope, Mandy Wright, to name only a few—and so grateful to them for sharing their painful, personal experiences, especially in front of a legislature that is so obviously unmoved and indifferent. They stood up and spoke on our behalf, for the women and families of Wisconsin, at no small cost to themselves, so that others could see what this bullying legislature and governor are doing to us and the contemptuous way they’re doing it.

Add to that not only the circumvention of all but the most minimal public input, but also the quashing of even the mildest form of public protest imaginable. Our silent objection to being silenced—putting tape over our mouths—was forbidden. Our role has been relegated to that of passive, voiceless recipient. Is it any wonder that many of us feel that GOP legislators are abusing the women and families of this state, not only by forcing those seeking a legal abortion to get an unnecessary and invasive medical procedure, but also by excluding us from the legislative process, even when it concerns us so very personally and directly? Even the state’s medical professionals have not had any input. While our voices are silenced, this is the loud and clear message of the Wisconsin GOP to the women of the state: Sit down and shut up!

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Many thanks to Leslie Amsterdam and Rebecca Kemble
for their excellent photos!

Capitol Police Observe MLK’s Birthday with an Episode of Racial Profiling

January 15, 2013, was the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. should have been celebrating his 84th birthday. (Was he really only 39 when he was assassinated? I was 11 at the time. I thought 39 was ancient then. Now it seems so very young.) January 15 was also the day of Scott Walker’s annual State of the State address, and the day a troubled young man, Kvon Smith, posted on Facebook that he was planning to bring Molotov cocktails to the Capitol.

Having received a heads-up about Smith’s plan, and having determined that it was a credible threat, the intrepid Capitol Police, those daring keepers of attendance for the Solidarity Sing Along, commendably notified the state police and, armed with a photo and their keen powers of observation, kept a sharp lookout for Smith.

Toward the end of the sing along, a horde of schoolchildren joined in singing “Solidarity Forever” in the rotunda (video). The video description says it was taken moments before the Capitol Police identified Smith, who was standing in the rotunda, just outside the frame of the video.

However, before that, another young man, Colin Bowden—who resembles Smith only insofar as he too is young, black, and male—was taken into custody by the Capitol Police. Bowden was handcuffed and detained without being told why.

However, state Department of Administration spokesperson Stephanie Marquis claimed that Bowden was taken into custody because he “had all the characteristics of Mr. Smith and was carrying a bag” (emphasis added).

Judge for yourself. Would you say that the young man on the left has “all the characteristics” of the young man on the right?

In a statement to friends and supporters on his Facebook page, Bowden had this to say about his experience:

I was told I am a spitting image of the person they thought called in a “serious threat.” This is something I was used to in Chicago, not Madison. … Perhaps the man in this picture looks like me. I doubt it, but I guess people who don’t know black people might mix us up. You see, when you get the wrong person because you’re looking at color before the facts, you risk losing actual perpetrators. If they had spent more time on investigating and trying to find the actual person instead of any ol’ black boy, they might’ve caught him sooner.

Indeed, while the Capitol Police were determining that Bowden was not Smith, the rotunda was full of people, many of them schoolchildren and one of them Kvon Smith, with his backpack. The Wisconsin State Journal reports: “Marquis said that Capitol Police and State Patrol officers were posted at all the Capitol entrances, and that Capitol Police officers immediately identified Smith when he entered the Capitol” (emphasis added).

Yet there’s no mention of why, if he was identified as soon as he entered the building, it wasn’t until he was all the way in the rotunda, surrounded by children and solidarity singers, that he was apprehended, or even why the building was still open when a credible bomb threat had been made.

It wasn’t until Smith’s backpack was taken outside to Wisconsin Avenue that part of the Capitol building was closed. The offices facing Wisconsin Avenue were evacuated, and the Wisconsin Avenue entrance to the Capitol was closed.

The following day, the Madison Fire Department confirmed that the liquids in Smith’s backpack were neither explosive nor flammable.

Had Smith’s backpack actually contained Molotov cocktails, had he acted quickly to ignite them in the rotunda, the misidentification of Bowden could easily have resulted in a terrible tragedy.

Nevertheless, the DOA issued a press release gloating that “Capitol Police protected hundreds of people in the state Capitol by apprehending and arresting Kvon Smith.” And the clearly self-satisfied DOA Secretary Mike Huebsch crowed: “A tragedy was avoided and our Capitol remains safe because of the actions of our officers yesterday.”

I wonder how safe Colin Bowden feels “because of the actions of our officers” on Tuesday. Or how overjoyed the parents of the children who thronged the rotunda feel about those same actions. And I’m sure Dr. King would have preferred that the Capitol Police mark the anniversary of his birth in a way that better reflected the values that he espoused.


I would venture that the Capitol Police “protected hundreds of people” Tuesday in the same way that they daily protect the citizens of Wisconsin from the nefarious noon-hour activities of the Solidarity Sing Along, especially the oh-so-hazardous banners.

Update: Colin Bowden has started a petition on Change.org demanding an end to racial profiling in the Wisconsin State Capitol. Please sign the petition and ask others to as well.

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Thanks to Judith Detert-Moriarty for her photo of Colin Bowden. The photo of Kvon Smith was obtained from the public portion of his Facebook profile. Thanks to Arthur Kohl-Riggs for the video of Kvon Smith’s arrest.

Shall Never Be Abridged

On Sunday, the Wisconsin State Journal featured an article by Nico Savidge with the headline “Tighter rules for Capitol protests not unlike many other states’.” On seeing this headline, my first reaction naturally was “Oh, well then, that makes it okay.” Not. The headline in Monday’s Pierce County Herald (Ellsworth, Wisconsin) read “Protesters at the State Capitol have it great compared to other statehouses.” Be sure to tell that to my buddy Will.

Will Gruber being arrested for disorderly conduct on Monday,
September 24, 2012, as he was leaving the Solidarity Sing Along
at the Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Leslie Amsterdam.

Tighter rules on protests inside the Wisconsin State Capitol have angered demonstrators and raised civil liberties concerns. But the state is in good company when it comes to regulating speech—especially loud or highly visible speech—in the seat of state government.

Good company?!?! You’re kidding, right? That would be like hearing from your doctor that, like you, half the people on your block have cancer, so, since you’re in such good company, no worries! Or, like you, half the people at your workplace are losing their jobs, so at least you’re not alone, right?

I have no idea where the “especially loud or highly visible speech” comes in, as this nicety is not addressed elsewhere in the article.

Wisconsin Department of Administration spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said the results of the [State Journal] survey show that Wisconsin’s requirements are reasonable and “much more generous” than those in other states.

This is kind of like saying that since the restrictions in your cell block are so much looser than those in the one next door, you should quit complaining. Notice also that Marquis was commenting on the State Journal’s survey before it was published. It’s enough to make one wonder where DOA public relations ends and the Wisconsin State Journal begins.

And this nugget of wisdom from Ms. Marquis: “The permitting process is there to make sure that everyone has a voice, and that everyone can use the Capitol.” Thank you so much for caring that everyone has a voice and that everyone can use the Capitol. However, it’s not “the permitting process” that does that, Ms. Marquis. The U.S. Constitution and the Wisconsin state constitution—they do that.

Soon after Erwin took over as chief, however, he said he would enforce the permit requirement. Erwin has lived up to that promise, with Capitol police issuing 23 citations for violations of Capitol rules regarding signs and permits in just one week earlier this month.

Au contraire, Chief Erwin has not lived up to that promise. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but the majority of the citations issued have not mentioned the lack of a permit. For the most part, they have to do with “obstruction,” although obstruction of what is not altogether clear. More to the point, the Capitol’s singing citizens continue singing, every weekday at noon. So far, the Solidarity Sing Along has obtained not a single permit. And since Erwin’s crackdown, our numbers have expanded as concerns about infringement of the right to free speech have grown.

Chief Erwin has said, “There is a time and place for free speech, and we reserve the right to regulate that a little bit. We just have to keep it civil and people don’t need to be threatened.”

No, your job, Chief Erwin, is not to regulate our free speech, not even “a little bit.” You see, as soon as you do that, it isn’t free anymore. Your job is to protect our right to free speech. And if anyone is doing a piss-poor job of “keeping it civil and making sure people don’t feel threatened,” it’s the Capitol Police, not the singing citizens in the Rotunda.

As of this writing there have been 467 consecutive weekday Solidarity Sing Alongs at the State Capitol. Whenever other groups have wanted to use the Rotunda, the Sing Along has graciously taken itself outside, even in the most inclement weather, rather than restrict or interfere with others’ access. But to hear Erwin and Marquis, you’d think it was the singing citizens who are making things difficult at the Capitol.

A little reminder for Nico Savidge, the State Journal, Chief Erwin, and Ms. Marquis:

Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is generally understood as a guarantee of the right to free speech for every U.S. citizen. To “abridge” here means to diminish, to curtail, to reduce in extent. There is no caveat that says it’s okay to “regulate that a little bit.” Because of the First Amendment, the right to free speech in this country is unassailable, undiminishable, unabridgable. It is sacrosanct. Without it, we are merely cogs in the great corporate machine that is consuming us all. This is not about a minor inconvenience. This is about something absolutely fundamental to what it means to be a U.S. citizen. It’s worth fighting for, and some brave and great souls have said—and demonstrated—that it’s worth dying for.

Jason Louise Huberty, who has received several citations thus far, holds a banner in the State Capitol on Friday, September 21, 2012. Lisa Wells, his partner, who has also received multiple citations, stands next to him with a sign that says “2nd Floor, 1st Amendment.” The banner hangs just above a bust of progressive hero Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette. Standing next to it is Dawn Henke, the disabled veteran who collapsed as the Capitol Police attempted to arrest her on September 14, 2012. Photo by Jenna Pope.

Moreover, Wisconsin isn’t just another state, and the Wisconsin State Capitol isn’t just another statehouse. Our state has a celebrated history of being a bastion of progressivism, a beacon in the dark night of assaults on civil rights. Our state constitution reaffirms and strengthens the rights guaranteed in the U.S. Bill of Rights.

The right of the people peaceably to assemble, to consult for the common good, and to petition the government, or any department thereof, shall never be abridged. (Article 4, Section 1, emphasis added!)

Furthermore, the National Register of Historic Places has this to say about the Wisconsin State Capitol:

Whereas some statehouses are maintained apart from the urban fabric, the Wisconsin Capitol Rotunda functions, both literally and symbolically, as a city center and is fully utilized as a public space to which all have claim.

Just because civil rights, and specifically free speech, are eroding all over the country does not mean that we should be content for them to erode here in Wisconsin. Those who acted to attach the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and those who framed the Wisconsin State Constitution well understood that free speech is absolutely essential and fundamental to a free people.

“What Were You Arrested For, Kid?”

I shake my head every time I think of Wisconsin Capitol Police Chief Erwin’s heavy-handed crackdown on the singing citizens in the Capitol. Before Erwin began arbitrarily handing out citations, we were a small, stalwart, ragtag bunch. I couldn’t make it every weekday, so for a while I came once a week; then when my schedule eased up a bit, I came two or three times a week.

My main motivation was to bolster my resolve in light of the disheartening results of the recall. Especially for the months of June and July, I felt like if I didn’t keep singing, I might succumb to a full-blown case of political malaise and election fatigue. Every time we sang Holly Near’s “We Are Gentle, Angry People,” I knew that in truth we were singing for our lives, for our hearts to be uplifted, for our courage and resolve to return, for our focus to shift to new ways of resisting the Walker regime.

Enter newbie Chief “The-military-prepares-you-to-be-a-great-leader” Erwin and his crackdown. The right-wing Wisconsin Reporter quoted him on September 10, the day before the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks: “And so we have a group of people that come here, and last week they were holding signs and they are part of this group that, for lack of a better word, are terrorizing people at this Capitol.”

“Terrorizing people”? Really? Chief Erwin, we’re holding signs and banners and singing. And you call that “terrorizing”? It’s a pity you lack a better word. We’d be happy to supply you with a few: citizens, constituents, Wisconsinites, singers.

A few of us have been handcuffed, arrested, issued citations, sent to jail; some were visited by the Capitol Police at home or at work; others found citations in their mailboxes. One of us collapsed as five police officers converged on her as she left the building. Members of the press and an ACLU observer have been harassed and threatened by the Capitol Police.

On September 12 several Wisconsin lawmakers sent a letter to DOA Secretary Mike Heubsch, asserting that “the Capitol police’s response to individuals peacefully protesting is now verging on ridiculous.” And yesterday the Madison Professional Police Officers Association (MPPOA) and the Dane County Deputy Sheriffs Association (DCDSA) issued a press release:

We have been watching with alarm the recent developments at the Wisconsin State Capitol. In recent weeks, the Department of Administration (DOA) and the leadership within the Capitol Police have commenced enforcement action against peaceful protesters coming to the Capitol. Officers have been ordered to arrest and cite protesters whose only offense is the silent carrying of a sign. Other protesters have been cited for gathering for the “Solidarity Sing-along,” a non-violent group of citizens who sing every day over the noon hour. The Solidarity Singers have been particularly cognizant of the needs of other groups who also want to utilize the Capitol, and frequently relocate outside the Capitol to be respectful of those needs. They are now being cited for assembly at the Capitol without a permit.

Today Chief Erwin whined his response: “It’s unfortunate that these associations would issue a statement about Capitol Police actions without ever contacting us. Our officers would never judge another police department’s enforcement without knowing the facts of the situation.”

It’s difficult to feel much sympathy if Chief Erwin believes his voice isn’t being heard and his input isn’t being sought. One of the singing citizens posted this today on Facebook in response to Erwin’s complaint:

The WPPOA (Wisconsin Professional Protest Organizers Association) issued the following response to Chief Erwin’s reply to the MPPOA’s criticism:

“It’s unfortunate that the new Chief would issue multiple statements about Citizen actions without ever contacting one of them (and ignoring multiple Citizen requests to meet with him). These Citizens would never judge any Capitol Police officer, including the Chief, except by their words and actions towards us. The facts in the present situation are beyond dispute. He is a complete asshole. Complete.”

Well now, I have to confess, I’m still grateful to the chief for revitalizing our daily citizen sing along. Whereas before I was content to show up two or three days a week to console myself with song, now I can’t bear to miss a day of singing for free speech in the land of the free. My hackles are up. “You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down.”

What you see here is an up-close look at the sign on the front of my scoot, along with my Chief Erwin mask, and my fist raised in solidarity. Above that is a heart balloon that was released accidentally today. The offender has already received a citation for an unpermitted “Display and Decoration (Release of balloon)” 2.07(2). Two Capitol Police officers were kind enough to deliver the citations in person to the woman’s home. Photo by Leslie Amsterdam

I stand in solidarity with my ticketed friends. Those citations belong to all of us, because we are all doing the same thing. We are, after all, singing about solidarity every day. The idea is not just to sing it, but do it. If you’d like to stand in solidarity with us, there are two things you can do:

1. Donate to the Legal Defense Fund (hosted by the Madison Infoshop), which since 1997 has been used to support those who have had their rights violated. Checks can be made to “Legal Defense Fund,” c/o Madison Infoshop, 1019 Williamson St. #B, Madison WI 53703. Please put “Capitol Protest” in the memo line. For more information, call 608-262-9036.

2. Join us on Friday from 5 to 6pm on the steps of the Dane County Courthouse for the Capitol Citation Speak-Out and Fundraiser Rally. The rally will feature speakers from the ACLU of Wisconsin and the National Lawyers Guild. We also hope to hear from some of those who were unconstitutionally cited and, of course, you, should you choose to make your voice heard!

I continue to wait for the knock on the door and look for a registered letter containing a pink citation or two in the mail. So far, nothing—even though I have done the same as my friends who have been arrested, cited, and chased down in the Capitol, at home, and at work.

But I’m ready. Bring it. In my head, I can hear Arlo Guthrie’s voice asking: “What were you arrested for, kid?” And I said, “Singin’.”