The Capitol was a heavily guarded fortress on Thursday morning as the Assembly prepared to vote on a bill limiting collective bargaining for Wisconsin public employees. Several officers stood in front of every door as sign-carrying, whistle-blowing, drum-beating protesters demanded entry. The peaceful relations between cops and protesters much remarked upon during the past three weeks of labor unrest were threatening to break down.
At the King Street entrance, speakers took to the microphone to express outrage over the Senate Republicans' tactics from the night before, when they hastily passed an amended version of Gov. Scott Walker's controversial budget-repair bill. That move has spurred a new round of demonstrations, beginning last night as protesters forced their way into the Capitol after the Senate's vote.
This morning, speakers described officers forcibly removing people from the Assembly chamber. One of those testifying was an indignant Mark Clear, president of the Madison city council.
"We are still not being let into our building!" Clear said.
A UW Milwaukee student described an officer hitting a protester in the face and drawing blood; another speaker said a cop closed a door on his leg. A woman with a trembling voice described being "assaulted" by an officer from the Division of Criminal Investigation, who pinned her arm and accused her of trying to grab his gun.
"This is what happens when democracy falls apart!" she said.
With stone-faced officers standing right behind her at the King Street entrance, another woman pleaded with the police to "make a choice and move aside."
There were other signs that Wisconsin's civil war has intensified. Across the street from the Capitol, firefighters picketed in front of M&I Bank, protesting its supposed support for Scott Walker (the bank has since denied any official support). One of the firefighters came to the microphone to urge M&I's customers to withdraw their money.
"By the end of the day, they're going to start to get the message," he said.
Other speakers demanded boycotts of Kwik Trip, Menards and Johnsonville.
At 11 a.m., protesters mobbed the State Street steps, trying to make their voices heard in the Assembly chamber.
"Let us in!" they chanted. "Let us in!"
And finally, the Capitol doors opened, allowing protesters to trickle in. "The people" once again had access to "their building," now outfitted with metal detectors.