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The Crime of Singing

Sep. 4, 2013
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Damon Terrell
Last week, as President Barack Obama praised everyday acts of ordinary Americans seeking justice and fairness as a continuation of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington 50 years ago, people in Wisconsin saw a video of their state Capitol police piling on top of a young black man at a protest of the policies of Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

The video, spread widely through social media, eerily resembled the most dramatic scene from Fruitvale Station, the current film about the death of a young black man targeted by Oakland transit police in a raucous crowd in the early morning hours of New Years Day, 2009.

Damon Terrell, the 22-year-old Wisconsin man, wasn’t injured, but he could have been.

At one point, police had Terrell pinned face down in the Capitol rotunda with a knee on his back, the same action that prompted community-wide protests in Milwaukee back in 1981 when it led to the death of an innocent black suspect, 22-year-old Ernest Lacy, during an arrest.   

There was one injury, though. Unbelievably, one of at least three Capitol police officers who took down Terrell complained he injured his ring finger making the arrest.

The “owie,” which easily could have resulted from the actions of the officer himself, led police to brazenly seek felony charges against Terrell for battery to an officer.

The ugly incident was just the latest violent escalation in the arrests of hundreds of protesters and observers at the Capitol over the last month. If you haven’t been paying attention, you’d never guess what’s causing an increasingly brutal crackdown on protests by the Walker administration.

The crime of singing. Yes, that’s right.

The hundreds of thousands who protested for weeks at the Capitol over Walker’s destruction of collective bargaining and slashing of wages for public employees are gone.

But a determined band of demonstrators never stopped showing up every weekday to sing protest songs opposing Walker’s dismantling of democracy in Wisconsin, leading to the administration’s latest attack on free speech and assembly.

In late 2011, Walker announced all groups of four or more people would have to apply for a permit 72 hours in advance before engaging in any activity expressing their opinions in the state Capitol.

That absurd policy is being challenged in a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin to be heard by Chief U.S. District Judge William Conley in January.


Why Follow Absurd Rules?

Conley already has suspended some of Walker’s rules as unconstitutional, but left in place for now a permit requirement for groups of 20 or more in the Capitol.

The situation has grown much more physical and confrontational with the arrival of a new sheriff in town. Walker’s new Capitol Police Chief Dave Erwin is clearly working frantically to earn the whopping 12% raise Walker manipulated for him under civil service rules while other state employees are limited to 1%.

Hundreds of Capitol arrests over the past month have not only occurred for the crime of singing, but photographers such as Terrell, carrying a video camera, were arrested for the crime of documenting arrests and Matt Rothschild, editor of The Progressive magazine, was arrested for the crime of being a journalist.

Everyone arrested (often with an additional charge for resisting arrest) faced a possibility of hundreds of dollars in fines and more in court costs, although many of the charges were quickly thrown out in court. Terrell spent four days in jail.

Many are now demanding individual jury trials to showcase the absurd waste of taxpayers’ money resulting from the thuggish tactics of Walker’s Capitol police.

As usual, Walker has a knack for looking reporters straight in the eye and calmly pretending his most outrageous policies are no big deal.

Walker said he welcomes protests every day for as long as he’s governor. “I have no problem with that. That is what’s great about America,” he said. All he was asking, Walker said, was that protesters “follow the rules.”

Boy, does that ever sound reasonable. It’s easy to see what’s causing all that trouble in Madison.

It’s those protesters who don’t want to follow the rules. It’s that black troublemaker who violently pulled all those large police officers to the floor of the Capitol and brutally hit his head against the ring finger of a policeman.

Walker would have more honestly stated the problem if he had said: “All I’m asking is that protesters follow my rules.”

His administration wrote those rules specifically to prevent Wisconsin citizens from publicly expressing their objections to his policies to their elected representatives in their own state Capitol.

Challenging government when it’s wrong, even if it means breaking rules that are wrong, is how Americans have always changed their country for the better.

Civil rights protesters never asked those who were denying their rights as citizens for permission to sing “We Shall Overcome.”


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