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Sunday, December 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 36.0° F  Overcast with Haze
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Protests surge as Wisconsin Capitol lockdown extends to downtown Madison
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Assembled demonstrators cheered and chantied as loudly as they could, in hopes of making their presence heard inside.
Credit:Kristian Knutsen

When the Capitol lockdown started Monday morning, following a successful gambit by protesters to remain ensconced inside the Rotunda the previous night, it was all but certain that the limits on access to the building would seep outside its walls Tuesday. Demonstrations have been building these last two weeks towards Gov. Scott Walker's budget address this afternoon, which would unveil a whole new set of cuts spreading the pain of austerity far beyond public employees.

Though a temporary restraining order required the Department of Administration to unlock Capitol doors and open access to the public Tuesday, the state did not alter its rules to get in, claiming that they met legal standards. The matter wound up in court by afternoon, continuing long enough to prevent public access inside the building in advance of Walker's speech, the unstated goal of these policies in the first place.

Amidst the legal dispute, crowds of people gathered outside the King Street entrance to the building all day long, queuing and clustering in an attempt to gain entrance. As their numbers grew through the afternoon, so too did the enormous law enforcement operation in place at and around the Capitol.

Around mid-afternoon, a set of concrete traffic barriers was unloaded at the top of West Washington Ave. and set in place at the driveway leading up to the Capitol. More barriers, the standard orange-and-white reflective type, were placed to divert traffic from the Square, as they have been now since the large protests started on Valentine's Day.

One block to the west, an orange mesh snow fence was placed at the top of the steps leading from State Street to the Capitol, blocking off access to most of the plaza outside the building's doors. A line of uniformed officers, mostly state troopers and sheriff's deputies from out-state departments, stood in a line inside this barricade, serving as a human deterrent to access. This type of barrier, rarely seen in protests on the Square, was last used a week ago Saturday to separate the small group of pro-Walker counter-protesters from the massively larger demonstrations surrounding it, and before that, to perform the same function at a neo-Nazi gathering held on Capitol grounds in August 2006.

Two stories above the State Street doors, the curtains to the Assembly chambers where the governor delivered his address were completely drawn. That didn't stop the thousands of assembled demonstrators from cheering and chanting as loudly as they could, in hopes of making their presence heard inside. The "Shame! Shame! Shame!" and "Whose House? Our House!" chants were ubiquitous throughout, and as the speech drew to a close, the crowd joined in chorus to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner," echoing a similar rendition of the national anthem at the colossal rally this past Saturday.

Over at the King Street entrance to the Capitol, a phalanx of officers from various departments stood guard in front of the doors, replacing the velvet ropes that have been in place the last two days. A crowd numbering merely in the hundreds was gathered here, likewise chanting and cheering.

The Capitol entrances at North and South Hamilton streets were relatively quiet. Only a handful of officers stood guard at the former, with protesters simply passing to and fro. At the latter, a few people were handing out neon Post-It notes for demonstrators to leave a symbolic message attached to the door, Martin Luther-style. By the end of the speech, all three doors were plastered with notes, a second layer of paper taking shape atop them.

A picket line, several score strong, made its way along the Square's inner sidewalk during the speech, while others riding bikes equipped with speakers and other noisemakers made the same counterclockwise circuit, adding to the cacophony of disgust echoing around all four corners.

Meanwhile, rumors have been flying around for more than a day about the presence of tunnels leading east from the Capitol to the Risser Justice Center and the state office building at 1 W. Wilson St. The former is used regularly by Capitol staff, and the concern uttered by protesters addressed whether or not it might be used to provide a discreet and unencumbered access to the speech for Walker supporters to pack the gallery. (This was later denied by a spokesperson for the governor.)

Before the speech, downtown Madison alder Byron Eagon stopped by the P2 level of the parking garage at the Risser building, witnessed dozens of law enforcement officers present, and snapped a photo of a few guarding a tunnel entrance.

Stopping by the Risser building shortly before the speech, I encountered a trio of plainclothes agents with the Division of Criminal Investigation in the Wisconsin Department of Justice, guarding a door to a space they claimed was a storm shelter. Unlike the generally relaxed and personable law enforcement officers on duty during the last two-plus weeks of protests, their attitude was adversarial, with one attempting to seize my Capitol press pass and suggesting I could be a "terrorist," before trying to dismiss the remark as a joke.

More agents were guarding the Doty Street entrance to the building's parking garage, along with several other law enforcement officers in suits. Stationed around the building for hours, these agents were from the Milwaukee bureau. While they are usually tasked with investigating a whole slew of serious crimes, from homicide and arson to drug trafficking and government corruption, as confirmed by one of the officers present, today they spent their time in a role dismissed as "palace guards" by Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney. A Department of Justice spokesperson confirmed that DCI agents were part of the police operations in Madison today.

Following the speech, a group of protesters wielding red vuvuzelas distributed by DJ Nick Nice parked themselves by the garage entrance, buzzing their horns jubilantly at the passing rush-hour traffic and receiving a chorus of honking in response.

Back at the Capitol, the scene after the speech was energetic but overtly frustrated. At the State Street plaza, members of the crowd rolled up the snow fence and started pounding on the doors, demanding to be let inside the building. Shortly thereafter, the crowd stated streaming towards the King Street entrance, where demonstrators have typically gathered in the evening.

On their way around the building, hundreds approached the Capitol entrances facing Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. On the lower level, dozens stood and chanted in front of the locked doors, behind which stood troopers and deputies watching the scene. One protester stopped by the window to an office in the south wing, pleading for help from the Democratic staffer inside. The crowd was even larger atop the stairs to the upper entrance, chanting "Our House!" and "Let Us In!" as a cluster of helmeted firefighters led the way right in front of the doors, drawing even more cheers from the demonstrators.

More made their way to the King Street doors, where an impromptu rally commenced. A bullhorn was produced, and speeches condemning Walker and his new budget followed, as did yet another round of chants and cheers, now with a hoarse edge, but still brimming with energy.

Now hours after the speech ended, the protests at the Capitol continue, with crowds still gathered in front of the King Street doors. On Monday night, people seeking to show solidarity with those protesters remaining inside the Capitol, and perhaps give themselves a chance at access inside the building today (no such luck), established a winter camp on the pavement of the plaza, unrolling sleeping bags and layering blankets against the cold night. Their name for the bivouac: Walkerville, a reference to the Hoovervilles established early in the Great Depression, and a shot at the governor's policies of transferring the burden of austerity as far down the ranks of wealth and power as imaginable (for now, at least).

Talk is already under way online for the camp-out to continue tonight as this phase of protests winds down, with another round to begin Wednesday. While Walker unveiled his budget before a cocooned audience overwhelmingly dominated by supporters, its program of education cuts, state aid slashes, investor welfare, and more is now out there, ready to catch the attention of voters statewide, union and non-union alike. Those who have demonstrated in Madison these last two weeks are now hoping it will spark a whole new round of outrage.

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