On Wednesday morning, the Madison Professional Police Officers Association and the Dane County Deputy Sheriff’s Association issued a statement of disagreement with the recent shift in Capitol policy. The Isthmus reports the association took issue with the way “officers are being forced into emotionally charged confrontations that are neither necessary nor advisable,” and asserted their belief that “the recent enforcement action at the Capitol clearly violates […] rights in a way that should be unacceptable in a free society.”
A tradition of active democracy has been an integral part of the vibrant political culture that this city enjoys. Gov. Scott Walker and Capitol Police Chief Dave Erwin’s attempt to suppress demonstration with handcuffs, red tape and endless bureaucracy has put this culture in jeopardy and deserves to be scrutinized. Yes, they are enforcing existing laws, but their intent to put an end to any sort of protest in the Capitol and strictly regulate public demonstration represent a break from Madison’s culture of political expression.
Everybody saw this coming. When Walker appointed Erwin this summer, it was only logical to expect a drastic change in the way demonstrations at the Capitol were handled. Erwin himself was vocal about his plans, which were reported on in an article by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, to “return the Capitol to some normalcy” by issuing tickets to protesters who attempt to intimidate legislators and enforcing permits. The same article explains he even suggested to legislators that if demonstrators were following and harassing them, they “could try to hit them.”
We do not condone the sort of aggressive protesting that involves screaming and swearing at lawmakers or pouring beer on their heads, and if it were the case that Erwin was specifically targeting this behavior, we would have no qualms. However, the arrests and citations have extended beyond belligerent protesters and have fallen on harmless sign-bearers in the Capitol and singers on the sidewalk.
Erwin has certainly followed through on his promise to arrest protesters without permits. He has even sent deputies to protesters’ homes to issue citations, according to the Progressive. Last week, the Isthmus reported that his office demanded that a folk band by the name of Moldy Jam, which has played at a farmers market in the parking lot of the Department of Transportation for more than five years, apply for a permit.
This is outrageous. First of all, band member Terry O’Laughlin explains that, “for the children, we put out boxes of shakers, rattles and other percussion instruments. This activity is quite popular.” Stepping on the air hose of a band that is trying to entertain children is morally indefensible.
The fact that the recent crackdown on Capitol protesters was predictable doesn’t make it acceptable. After the waves of public outrage that hit Capitol Square last year, it is not surprising a Walker-appointed Capitol police chief would seek to limit demonstrations, especially those putting lawmakers in jeopardy. Erwin was clear about his intentions to protect legislators. However, we feel recent arrests and citations have made it clear Erwin’s aggressive policy goes beyond what would be warranted by safety concerns.
In sum, his crusade against demonstrators amounts to a belated effort to retaliate against a protest movement that overran the Capitol building last year. It is an attack on a culture of free political expression that makes no distinction between the sort of intimidation and harassment that puts lawmakers in danger and other peaceful forms of civil discourse.
Just as state legislators deserve a safe workplace environment, citizens deserve a centrally located public venue in which to participate in direct democracy. We believe that the Capitol can serve both of these purposes.