Madison: The protest capitol

Wisconsin's statehouse plays host to activism
Madison: The protest capitol
Katie Scheidt
A sea of people in 2016 rally for a "Day Without Latinos."

Thousands gather around the white granite building in the center of Madison’s isthmus, raising signs and their voices. Some march through the spinning doors of the state Capitol and enter the rotunda, banging drums and marveling at the sound they create in the cavernous building. They come because they claim they aren’t being heard and refuse to take mistreatment any longer. Since 2011, demonstrations at the Capitol have grown in number and size and have become a primary way to show opposition, such as these protests.

Budget Repair Bill/Act 10

The first major protest in years at the Capitol came in reaction to what was then known as the “Budget Repair Bill,” now Act 10. The measure repealed most collective bargaining rights from state statute, and required public employees to increase contributions to their pensions and health care coverage. Gov. Scott Walker introduced the bill on Feb. 11, 2011, and Republican lawmakers swiftly announced their intention to pass it. Everyone from teachers to teamsters called in sick and trudged through February fog to protest at the Capitol. Over the next few weeks, an encampment of sorts took over the building, where people slept overnight in hallways and taped posters to the walls. When the bill passed the Senate on March 9, 2011, the Capitol was flooded. People climbed through ground floor windows to get inside to protest and try to stop passage. In the end, lawmakers passed the bill. On the following Saturday, an estimated 100,000 people filled Capitol Square and promised action would follow. While some of the same people gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures to recall the governor and Republican senators, the sitting lawmakers largely prevailed and Act 10 remains law.

Robinson Shooting/Black Lives Matter

On March 6, 2015, a Madison police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager on Williamson Street–just days after the U.S. Justice Department said it would not issue charges against an officer in the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In Madison, Tony Robinson Jr.’s death at the hands of officer Matthew Kenny brought young people out in droves. More than 1,000 people marched with a banner that became a familiar refrain, “Black Lives Matter,” and demanded justice. Two months later, after a Department of Justice investigation, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne declined to charge Kenny with wrongdoing. The Madison Police Department also found that Kenny didn’t violate internal protocols. Robinson’s family recently settled a civil lawsuit against the city of Madison.

Day Without Latinos

The shouts and chants could be heard inside the Capitol while lawmakers discussed a bill in February 2016 that would penalize so-called sanctuary cities. The “Day Without Latinos” protest had drawn an estimated 20,000 protesters to the Capitol as the state Assembly debated the measure, which stated that local governments could not prohibit law enforcement from asking about immigration status at arrest. The Assembly did pass the measure that day, but it was not taken up in the Senate and the bill died at the end of the session. Lawmakers are considering two similar bills this session.

Women’s March

Just hours after President Donald Trump was sworn into office, women filled the streets of cities around the world to protest the new administration and multiple issues related to women’s rights. That included Madison, where police estimated up to 100,000 people crowded State Street and Capitol Square. Signs dotted the enormous crowd with sentiments like: “Don’t build walls, build bridges” and “Use Caution: The Nasty Women are here.” It’s uncertain what their next step may be.

Jessica Arp is the political reporter at WISC-TV.