Following three days of testimony, a Dane County Circuit Court judge ordered the Capitol building closed to the public Thursday evening, forcing the hundreds of protesters who have been sleeping on the building’s floor for the past two weeks to exit the premises by its 6 p.m. closing time.
Judge John Albert ordered law enforcement authorities to immediately begin clearing the Capitol and remove any unauthorized materials like sleeping bags and signs but said recent restrictions limiting the public’s access to the building during business hours were unconstitutional and violated the public’s free speech and assembly rights.
Albert said authorities were required to re-open the Capitol with greater public access by 8 a.m. Monday.
After 41 rounds of .22-caliber ammunition were found hidden in three different locations throughout the Capitol grounds Thursday morning, Assistant Attorney General Steven Means, representing the Department of Administration in the lawsuit surrounding occupancy restrictions, asked the judge to order the building closed for security reasons.
DOA spokesperson Tim Donovan said despite the live ammunition, the building was still operating as normally as any Thursday with previously established access procedures. Officers are currently allowing one person into the Capitol for every one person who leaves the building unless individuals have appointments with representatives or have official business in the building.
“The building is still doing what the building does – we’re following the same access procedures that have been in effect all week, and we will do what we have to do when we have to do it if and when we have to do it,” Donovan said. “If there is some reason we need to change we are doing, we will do that at that time.”
Donovan said he could not characterize whether the ammunition represents a credible threat and said he would not immediately characterize it as being connected with the protests.
Donovan said at about 7:15 p.m. Thursday, law enforcement officers were preparing to ask the people who intended to spend the night at the Capitol to leave voluntarily. He said those who refused would otherwise be forcefully removed.
“The goal is not to arrest anybody – the goal is to encourage these people to follow the court order,” Donovan said. “The judge has ordered them to leave and no one wants to arrest anybody – we are hoping not a single arrest is made.”
DOA authorities also said protesters had to eliminate signs because of the damage the tape used to post them has done to the Capitol’s marble.
Madison Police Department spokesperson Joel DeSpain said officials are estimating it will cost $7.5 million to remove the tape and fix the damage it has done.
While authorities inside the building were attempting to push crowds out, between 7,000 and 8,000 protesters participating in a mock funeral procession for the budget repair bill rallied on the Capitol steps. Protesters were dressed in funeral attire and marched from Library Mall down State Street and around Capitol Square. Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison, marched alongside the procession and said it was an expression of protesters maintaining their rights and arguing for the building to be re-opened to the public.
“It’s a rally for rights and a festival for freedom,” Hulsey said. “We’re doing all we can to keep the Capitol open for the people, not just the lobbyists and the polluters.”
Ammunition was also discovered at Madison’s City County Building, located less than a block from the Capitol and housing the Madison Police Department, the Mayor’s Office and representatives from Madison’s City Council and Dane County Board, among various other offices.
DeSpain said multiple rounds of live ammunition were found in the building’s stairways and in some public bathrooms. The department is not disclosing the type or amount of ammunition and has kept the building open because no credible threat has been made against any of its employees.
It has not yet been determined if the rounds found at the Capitol and the rounds found at the CCB are a match, DeSpain said.
– The Associated Press contributed to this story