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Thursday, September 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 51.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Scott Walker's crazy overreach
The governor lowers the boom on protesters at the Capitol and the mining site

Between executive power, the line-item veto, both houses of the Legislature, and a friendly Supreme Court, you'd think Gov. Scott Walker would feel he has enough control over our state.

But no.

There are those pesky singers who show up in the Capitol at noon. And there's that tribal encampment in Iron County, where a handful of Native Americans and their supporters are leading tours of the forest and wetlands where Walker's buddy Chris Cline plans to build the world's largest open-pit iron ore mine.

It turns out even small groups of protesters are intolerable to our governor. Hence the mass arrests last week of the Solidarity singers in the Capitol and the sudden eviction and threats of criminal prosecution against the Iron County tribal members.

To say the state's response to protesters is excessive is a huge understatement.

Capitol Police Chief David Erwin, an ex-Marine who was Walker's personal bodyguard before he replaced former chief Charles Tubbs, used a deafening Long Range Acoustic Device, zip ties and aggressive frog-marches of elderly and disabled singers, shoving them into the Capitol basement before they were charged. A Lutheran minister who began having heart trouble during this process has been in the hospital ever since.

In all, 22 singers received citations for gathering in the Capitol without a permit. That's two more than a federal judge ruled could gather without the state invoking its authority to intervene.

Not exactly a public-safety emergency.

What's more, if the state's goal was to quiet down the singers, the mass arrest had the opposite effect: 200 people showed up the next day to protest the assault on citizens' right to free speech.

Walker's supporters argue that if the singers want to gather they should just follow the rules and get a permit, as David Blaska and his insufferable band of patriotic singers have done, touting their permitted (and utterly charmless) sing-along.

Here's what's wrong with that argument: Since when do citizens need to appeal to their political leaders for permission to protest? Why should the Capitol building be run like a private office, where our elected leaders meet with lobbyists and fast-track legislation to sell off public lands, undercut teachers and give millions of the taxpayers' money to their campaign donors for phony job-creation schemes, while the public is barred entry in groups of more than 20?

Actually, Walker wanted to enforce the permit rule on groups of more than four.

These are the kinds of rules that prompted Sheriff Dave Mahoney to pull back his deputies from blocking the Capitol doors during the historic protests of 2011, saying he was no longer willing to make his men act as Walker's private "palace guard."

Up north, the issue is the same.

Two months ago, the forest committee of the Iron County board unanimously approved waiving the 14-day limit on camping for the tribal encampment formed by members of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. The committee agreed that, as a "tribal gathering," the encampment could stay for a year.

Then, in July, the committee reversed itself. In a closed session, it decided to evict the tribes and, without notice, announced possible criminal charges.

What happened?

Progressive reporter Rebecca Kemble was on the scene. In interviews with forestry committee members, she discovered that Walker's Department of Natural Resources had threatened to remove the forestry committee's certification to manage the local land -- and eliminate funding for forestry jobs -- if the committee didn't evict the tribes.

Ultimately, the tribes will win in federal court, Kemble predicts. Their treaty rights will trump Walker's threats through the DNR.

But Walker's overbearing tactics are disgusting.

You may remember that the governor admitted the owner of the GTAC mine basically wrote the law short-circuiting environmental regulations and public comment. The mine is in one of the most environmentally sensitive areas of the state, a center of tourism, hunting, fishing and the wild rice harvest for area tribes, as well as the major source of drinking water for six cities. Contaminants from taconite mining include arsenic, mercury and heavy metals. And GTAC itself has been cited 25 times (PDF) for clean-water violations at four other mines.

When the company's illegal security force, composed of masked, heavily armed guards from a weird out-of-state paramilitary group, Bulletproof Security, were kicked out of the state, right-wing bloggers went nuts, demanding that protesters near the proposed mine be evicted, too.

Then came the sudden threats and eviction of the tribes. That's the way business is done these days in Walker's Wisconsin.

Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.

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