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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 33.0° F  Overcast
The Paper
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Subdued atmosphere at Wisconsin Capitol as week winds down
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The signs inside the Capitol now far outnumber the people.
Credit:Lin Weeks

The air inside the Capitol felt a little heavier Friday afternoon, as if the crowds of demonstrators had paused to catch their collective breath after two weeks of cheering themselves hoarse by day and camping on a hard marble floor at night. Gone were the drum circles, the boisterous chants, and the dancing protesters at the heart of the Rotunda. In their place was open space, an abundance of lingering signs, and a conversational buzz best described as somewhere between mellow and melancholy.

There was no line to enter the Capitol, despite the ongoing security measures in place. Public access is now limited to the North and South Hamilton entrances, where, once through the doors, an improvised screening process is enforced by a crowd of uniformed law enforcement officers.

Members of the public seeking entrance were required to empty their pockets, purses and persons of any metal objects, and place them in a plastic bin, which is handed over to an officer who gives it a quick once over. An officer also uses a metal-detecting hand wand to scan the person wishing to enter.

The police officer who checked me was friendly and professional, though he seemed slightly tired. He also expressed a bit of wariness about the end of the work week and the weekend ahead. Upon seeing my camera and notepad, he nodded. "Tomorrow's going to be an even bigger day for you," he said. His tone made clear the subtext -- it would be for him as well.

The signs inside the Capitol now far outnumber the people. Clusters of three to five people were spread sporadically across the room, all talking in low tones amongst themselves. A lost-looking woman stared into her cell phone, standing motionless; in her left hand, a sign drooped at a precarious angle: "Whose House? Our House."

If crowds on the ground floor were thin, the upper floors were downright sparse. A notice to one hallway, festooned with neon and multi-colored signs, proclaimed: "Take off your shoes, this is a clean floor zone." Near the head of the hallway was a couple, a man passed out inside a sleeping bag and a woman studying the contents of her purse. Save for them and the signs, the hallway was completely empty.

Back outside, I circled the Capitol. On the steps to State Street entrance, an older woman looped mournful trumpet and vocals through a portable speaker, matching the funereal atmosphere of the gray skies. Behind her, the locked wooden door were hidden behind a host of brightly colored Post-It notes covered with messages; a makeshift Western Wall, with prayers to the officeholders inside. They read: "Two cold Madison teachers checking in," "I was here. Let me in!," "Don't destroy Wisconsin education," "Why is the state afraid of the people?"

At the King Street entrance, 20 to 30 people were gathered to listen to the barely-coherent ramblings of a man taking his turn at an open mic. "This is the people's microphone. Anyone with a story to tell can do it here," said the de facto emcee, before handing it to the speaker.

The crowd didn't know what to make of the man's speech. They clapped politely when he said that he was on Medicare and Social Security. His intended climax -- "If George Bush was our first anti-president, Scott Walker is our first anti-governor!" -- drew only a few shouts of affirmation. He finished soon after that remark, and a pulsing techno beat played through the system, filling the air until the next speech.

The crowd started to disperse, and a man passing by held a sign depicting a badger with a legend below that read: "As long as it takes."

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