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Free Speech Under Assault in the Capitol

Walker’s police arrest peaceful protesters and observers

Aug. 29, 2013
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“Scott Walker and his police force are showing increasing hostility toward almost every aspect of the First Amendment,” The Progressive’s editor Matthew Rothschild said last week.

He should know.

On Aug. 15, Rothschild was interviewing peaceful protesters at the daily Solidarity Sing Along in the state Capitol when a State Capitol Police officer arrested him, knowing full well that he was working as a reporter and just doing his job.

Rothschild was handcuffed and escorted to the basement, then moved to the Dane County jail, where he was booked, fingerprinted and had his mug shot taken before he was charged with “resisting or obstructing.”

He was released on a $300 bail and will plead not guilty on Sept. 23.

Rothschild is just one high-profile victim of the Walker administration’s attack on the vital First Amendment rights to assemble, speak freely, protest the government and maintain a free press.

“That’s the bigger point—just how reactionary the Scott Walker government is becoming,” Rothschild said. “How hostile they are to basic American freedoms.”

Among the roughly 300 people arrested are senior citizens, a union fireman, a teenager, and a bystander on the second floor holding a small sign saying, “I am observing only.”

Even state Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Cross Plains) was threatened with arrest when she stood a few feet from her office on the balcony with Tia Nelson, former Gov. Gaylord Nelson’s daughter, to watch the Sing Along a floor below them.

“This begs so many insane questions,” Pope said. “Is humming OK? Toe tapping? The equivalent of clapping? This is insanity.”

Pope said the administration hasn’t offered up a written policy on who could be subject to arrest and why.

“There are no rules, there are no guidelines,” Pope said. “They haven’t issued the manual yet. If there is one, they haven’t shared it with the public. The questions aren’t answered. The emails aren’t responded to. And it changes every day.”

The Department of Administration, which oversees the State Capitol Police, didn’t respond to the Shepherd’s request to comment for this article.


‘You Screw Us, We’ll Multiply’

The crackdown on the Solidarity Singers, who have sung protest songs in the Capitol rotunda each weekday noon since Walker introduced his collective bargaining bill in January 2011, intensified in July, after U.S. District Judge William Conley temporarily halted Walker’s new permitting rules in the state Capitol. Walker had wanted groups of more than four people to apply for a permit to assembly in the Capitol. Conley ruled that groups of fewer than 20 people didn’t need a permit to assemble. He’ll take up the case, which was brought by the ACLU of Wisconsin, in January 2014.

The Solidarity Singers and their supporters haven’t applied for a permit to assemble. The Capitol police, now under the direction of Chief David Erwin, have issued about 300 citations since Conley’s decision.

Rothschild said it’s unthinkable to ask the singers or observers to take out a permit, since it isn’t an organized group and a permit comes with potential financial liabilities for additional security and damages.

“If it’s a right it’s a right and you shouldn’t have to get a permit,” Rothschild said.

He said last week that the show of force has ratcheted up the tension in the Capitol and he worries that the police are itching for a confrontation. (On Monday, one arrest got physical.) But instead of discouraging the protestors, the Walker crackdown has increased their numbers, Rothschild said.

“This ad hoc group was dwindling in numbers,” Rothschild said. “And they would have continued to dwindle if Scott Walker hadn’t cracked down on them. Now, as the saying goes, ‘You screw us, we’ll multiply.’ And that’s what’s happened.”

Pope said the arrests have nothing to do with public safety and everything to do with politics.

“Clearly, it’s about intimidation,” Pope said. “Clearly, it’s about silencing the voices of the people against Scott Walker and his administration and the Republican legislators. There is no doubt that is what this is about. And that is all the more reason to oppose this.”

But Rothschild wondered if Walker wasn’t getting a reward for silencing his critics.

“Maybe the goal is Scott Walker is raising money from his right-wing paymasters like the Koch brothers for every single arrest that the state Capitol police are making,” Rothschild said. “I have no evidence of that but it’s not an illogical assumption. Otherwise, why would he keep doing it?”


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