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Monday, September 15, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 53.0° F  Overcast
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Protesters defy deadline, remain inside Wisconsin Capitol over Sunday night
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The protesters saw no reason to close the building.
Credit:Joe Tarr

Sue Pezanoski Browne wasn't sure what she would do. A 4 p.m. deadline to vacate the Capitol building was looming. She couldn't decide whether to risk arrest by defying the order to leave, as hundreds, if not thousands of protesters were planning.

"I'm really on the fence," said Pezanoski Browne, a teacher with Milwaukee public schools. "I want to stay because I don't think this building should be closed to the public. It feels like an important debate, not just for Wisconsin, but for the United States."

"It's a sad moment when this building closes," she added.

But there were, of course, other considerations. "My husband doesn't want me to come home with a ticket. I've already lost a day's pay [protesting earlier in the week]."

Pezanoski Browne expected to make her decision when the order came. "I think I'm good at intuitively reading a situation," she said, but added she was "having trouble picking up the energy of law enforcement." Some, she thought, were acting "really uncomfortable, keeping their distance."

As it turned out, Pezanoski Browne was spared her agonizing choice. Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs decided to keep the building open, a decision he said he made in consultation with his policy team. He did not consult with Gov. Scott Walker, he said.

"There's a group that decided to remain," Tubbs said. "They've been orderly."

Gearing up toward the 4 p.m. closing time, tensions were high. A medic gave instructions to the crowd through a bullhorn: take out your contacts, make sure you have an inhaler if you've got asthma. But she stopped and added, "I'm not trying to freak anybody out." The advice was just a precaution, she said.

Sarah, a retired teacher who would not give her last name, said she would leave out of respect for the police: "They're worn out. They're absolutely exhausted."

Margo Ptacek, of Madison, was knitting a sweater in a group of knitters, and was also on the fence. "I would like to stay and show solidarity," she said. "I also respect police are in a position where they don't want to throw us out, they're with us.... It's our house, it's not the governor's Capitol, and it's certainly not the Koch brothers' Capitol," she said in reference to billionaires Charles and David Koch, who have given money to Walker and other conservative groups.

At 3:30 p.m., there was an announcement over the loudspeaker that the Capitol would close soon. Rep. Brett Hulsey (D-Madison) urged the crowd to go: "Do the most important thing of this campaign, which is to follow me out the door at 4 o'clock." He was widely booed, and responded, "I'm not telling you what to do, I'm asking you."

Some did leave at 4 p.m. But thousands stayed. Rebecca Kemble, a Union Cab driver, was going to leave. "But when people started vacating the Rotunda, my friend and I decided to stay," she said. "We needed to hold this space. If we hadn't been holding this space, we wouldn't have had 100,000 people here on Saturday."

"It's where all the decisions are being made, and it's a symbolic space," she added. "They're making some really bad decisions, and we need to hold them accountable."

After 4 p.m., most of the protesters were on the second level, where they were told to go if they planned on getting arrested. Many danced and chanted, as they have all week. A long standoff seemed likely.

The protesters saw no reason to close the building. "It's been shown this can continue peacefully," said Michelle Amundson of Madison. "I've seen little babies all the way up to people in their 90s. There's no reason it should close."

A level of defiance set in. At one point, people chanted: "Officers join us." Former Mayor (and current candidate) Paul Soglin, a veteran of political protest, said it didn't seem like arrests were imminent. "For one thing, the officers are usually wearing gear to handle crowds, but they're not [here]." He also said there's usually another group of officers who will get ready to handle those arrested, but saw no sign of them.

"What I find even more curious is why Scott Walker would try to escalate by closing the building," Soglin said. "There's no upside for him."

Gregory Bird, a Milwaukee resident who owns a design firm, said he moved to Wisconsin in 1975 precisely because of its progressive tradition of good will. "I'm not interested in having Wisconsin become like the Southern tier of states, where it's an ownership society and you're on your own," he said.

"Walker wants to put an end to [Wisconsin's] good will," Bird added. "This is the spirit of Joe McCarthy rising from the swamps."

The protesters included police and firefighters. David McClurg, a sergeant with the Madison Police Department, said he finished his eight-hour shift and came over to show support. "We're totally cooperative," he said. "We also want to make a statement [that] it's wrong for the governor to close the building."

Former Dane County prosecutor Judy Munaker was also there and said she was prepared to get arrested for the cause. "I think this is crucial for Wisconsin and America. I don't think the police want us out of here."

At about 7 p.m., an announcement was made that the Capitol would remain open for the night, and the protesters could stay. Cheers erupted. But after that, the crowd began to thin out. While they wanted the power to stay in the Capitol all night, many of them prefer their beds to a marble floor.

Such was the case with Pezanoski Browne, who said, "I'm going to drive back to Milwaukee and get ready to teach in the morning."

The Department of Administration released a press release later in the evening saying there were 4,000 people in the Capitol Sunday. It did not give a count for how many stayed at closing. No arrests were made.

Chief Tubbs said he would consult with his staff to see how to proceed on Monday night, meaning there could be another showdown.

Inside, Kemble concluded: "It's really important for us to keep the pressure on until the bill is killed in the Senate or withdrawn from the Assembly."

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