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Wednesday, October 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 49.0° F  Overcast
The Daily
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Lockdown at Wisconsin Capitol doesn't keep out public passion
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The Beloit Firefighters Honor Guard, with Flanahan (at right): 'We just don't want to lose the ability ... to stand together as a group.'
Credit:Bill Lueders

I just got back from the state Capitol, now in lockdown mode. At least 1,000 people are gathered outside, not liking the exclusion. The chants included "Arrest Walker!" and "Whose house? Our house!"

I saw a man at one entrance, pleading to be let in: "Is it possible for me to speak with my assemblyperson, Sondy Pope-Roberts?" The answer was no.

State employees were being let in at one entrance, in groups of no more than eight at a time. Some lawmakers were also able to gain admission for small numbers of constituents. I spoke to songwriter Lou Berryman, who said Rep. Brett Hulsey had gotten her in, but was not able to do the same for some others who hoped to follow.

Even for media, there were fresh obstacles. Each day the press corps covering these events have been given a brightly colored cardboard card that allows them admission to the building's otherwise forbidden areas, like the governor's office and Assembly chambers. I have one for each day since the protests closed off this access: orange, blue, pink, purple, green, red, light yellow, gold. But until today, these have not been needed to enter the building.

Without a gold card for today, I could not get into the building to get the gold card I needed for today. At one entrance, a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice agreed to try to help me get in; as it turned out, I helped the Supreme Court justice get in, telling the guard who was prepared to deny entrance who this person was. I myself was turned away.

I did manage to get into the building at the one entrance (West Washington Avenue) that media are allowed to enter by showing a business card. But once inside I was blocked from going to the Press Room on the second floor because I lacked the gold card I was going there to get. I called the office of Rep. Mark Pocan, which sent an aide to get me back through.

Outside of the Press Room, I spoke to Dick Wheeler, of the Wheeler Report news service, who knows more about the Legislature than any other journalist in Wisconsin. I asked him if it was true that the Legislature cannot legally conduct business if the building is closed to the public. He confirmed this, pointing me to Article 4, Section 10 of the state Constitution.

It reads: "SECTION 10. ... The doors of each house shall be kept open except when the public welfare shall require secrecy. Neither house shall, without consent of the other, adjourn for more than three days." The section apparently applies only to when business is being conducted.

In other words, Gov. Scott Walker can keep people out, but the Legislature can't accomplish anything so long as he does. Neat trick.

Inside the building at 1 p.m. were at least several hundred people. All were orderly. None of the signs posted all over the building appear to have been taken down, although I did speak with Madison attorney Deborah Mulligan, on hand as a "legal observer," who said she did see a small number of signs being removed. She also says the protesters were asked earlier today to remove any signs from the floor, as a potential fire hazard, and "they did what they were asked."

Mulligan feels the lockdown is a betrayal of sorts, in that the protesters were told last night, "if we stayed on the first floor and were peaceable that demonstrators would be allowed back in at 8 a.m." It's not clear if the Capitol police changed their mind, or had it changed for them.

I spoke to some people who, like me, got into the building today, albeit with difficulty. The Beloit Firefighters Honor Guard came into town today, hoping to lend their voices to the debate.

One of these firefighters, Jeremy Flanagan, told me his department sent 14 firefighters to the event, all on their days off. Six of them were able to get in, thanks to Rep. Pope-Roberts. The rest were among the 200 or so firefighters outside of the Capitol, from all over Wisconsin as well as Chicago.

Once inside, the firefighters from Beloit did what they usually do for ceremonial occasions and parades -- "just posting colors." They had a U.S. flag, a Wisconsin flag, and the flag of the International Association of Firefighters. They stood on the second-floor balcony -- I'm not sure how they got past security -- and later walked down to the lower floors.

The firefighters are members of Local 583 in Beloit. They are here to show solidarity with fellow union members. While firefighters are exempt from the governor's benefit grabs and collective bargaining attacks, Flanagan says "we're supporting everybody who has anything to do with unions."

Flanagan understands perfectly well why people are fighting back. If the collective bargaining rights of firefighters were being curtailed, he'd be fighting back too.

"We've given up so many years of pay increases to just have what we have," he told me. "We just don't want to lose the ability to talk to people as a group, to stand together as a group."

Some firefighters have through their unions signaled a willingness to pay more toward their pensions and health-care costs, even though they have not been asked to do so, if only Walker leaves the collective bargaining rights of other unionists alone. Flanagan is on board with that.

"We would definitely give as much as it takes," he promised. "We would be willing to give whatever it takes to keep the right to bargain for others."

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