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Thursday, September 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 51.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Solidarity Sing Along protest "fueled" by Wisconsin Capitol police crackdown
Each new round of enforcement leads to spike in participation
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Higgins: 'We don't have a voice in our government.'
Credit:Bennet Goldstein

According to Pam Oliver, an expert on social movements and collective actions, there are typically multiple protests a day at statehouses across the country.

"That's what Americans do," says Oliver, a sociology professor at UW-Madison. "Most [protests] are small, and most don't get news coverage."

That in part defeats the purpose of a protest, which is to draw attention to a cause.

"The most deadly thing that can happen to someone trying to protest is to be completely ignored," says Oliver."Having the authorities respond to you is in many ways better than being ignored in terms of the cause," she adds.

Under these terms, things have worked out well for the Solidarity Sing Along, which grew out of the massive protests that started in February 2011 following Gov. Scott Walker's move to eliminate collective bargaining rights for most public workers.

Protesters have gathered at the Capitol each weekday at noon since March 11, 2011, to express their continued opposition to Walker's policies. The number of participants has varied, but has spiked each time Capitol police have started issuing tickets to singers who have refused on First Amendment grounds to secure a permit to assemble in the Capitol.

The first crackdown began in September 2012 after Chief David Erwin was appointed the top cop at the Capitol. Hundreds of tickets were issued to participants, many of which were later dismissed.

Capitol police started issuing another round of tickets July 24 after a July 8 ruling by U.S. District Judge William Conley. Conley ruled that it was unconstitutional to require a permit for any gathering of four or more people but that Capitol police could require permits for groups larger than 20.

With each new round of police enforcement, resistance has intensified, participation at the noontime sing-alongs has gone up and news coverage has increased.

"The repression itself becomes news," says Oliver.

The latest rise in participation followed a week of high-profile arrests at the Capitol that included Matt Rothschild, editor of The Progressive magazine; Ald. Mark Clear; three members of the Raging Grannies; and a 14-year-old girl.

Capitol police had also previously warned observers, including Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Middleton), that they, too, were subject to arrest. But following news coverage of that development, the Department of Administrationreversed course.

Kathy Liska was at the Solidarity Sing Along Monday, a couple of days after labor leader Marty Beil issued a Facebook appeal to rank-and-file members to join the noontime sing-along at the Capitol.

"Before the crackdown we had about 25 to 30 people," she said. On Monday, the crowd swelled to several hundred participants, with public workers, including firefighters and police officers, a more visible presence than in recent weeks.

Ted Higgins, a member of Firefighters Local 311, wore his firefighting helmet to the sing-along Monday, where he was arrested. He said the arrest of the 14-year-old was a tipping point for him and his coworkers, who are also concerned that Walker said in late July he was open to limiting collective bargaining rights for police and firefighters. Some law enforcement and public safety employees were excluded from the labor restrictions placed on other public employees in March 2011.

"[Walker] wants to take away the voice we have in the workplace, and now we don't have a voice in our government," said Higgins. "But we can control how we react to it."

Robert Asen, a UW-Madison communications professor who studies public policy debates and rhetoric, says there is little doubt that the "increased attention and increased participation is in some ways a response to the stricter stance the Walker administration has adopted in terms of these protests."

"I think people have been angered," he adds. "They see reports of people, peaceful protesters, including journalists, being arrested."

If the Walker administration's goal is to minimize the protest, it should allow the sing-along to proceed, Asen says.

"By being as heavy-handed as they have been in arresting protesters, they've only fueled the fire and gotten more people motivated to participate in these protests. It's hard to figure out what they're trying to accomplish."

Walker spokesman Tom Evenson did not respond to a request for comment.

Oliver guesses that Department of Administration officials might say they're cracking down on the sing-along because they don't want to see the protests get out of hand or become as big as they were in early 2011. But, as is often the case, the strategy has produced the opposite effect.

Says Oliver: "The danger of reacting to a protest is you might make it bigger by giving it something to push against."

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