Singing Protesters Arrested In Wisconsin Plead Not Guilty

Peaceful protesters have staged lunchtime sing-a-longs denouncing Gov. Scott Walker's policies since they were enacted in 2011.
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    UPDATE: The 40 protesters arrested for participating in sing-along protests at the Wisconsin State Capitol rotunda entered not-guilty pleas last week, the latest development in the daily protests against Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s administration. At least 223 have been issued citations for unlawful assembly over the past two weeks.

    The singing protests against Walker and Wisconsin’s public leadership have continued daily since the passage of Act 10 in 2011, which cut collective bargaining rights for unions and municipal employees across the state. Singing protesters claim their practice is a constitutionally protected form of free assembly, while the Walker administration maintains that any group over 20 needs a permit in order to assemble inside the Capitol rotunda.

    When contacted for comment, Stephanie Marquis, a spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Administration offered Mint Press News the following statement:

    “The group is being cited for not complying with the law and court order that requires them to get a permit. The Capitol Police have already stated they would approve a permit for the noontime singers if they would apply. The permit is free and the group could continue to say and sing the same things.”


    The original article, “Wisconsin Ramps Up Arrests Of Singing Protesters,” was published July 27, and appears below:

    For the third day in a row, police in Madison, Wisc., have arrested dozens of peaceful protesters taking part in lunchtime sing-alongs inside the state capitol rotunda, increasing the weekly total arrested to at least 60, including two senior citizens aged 85 and 80.

    The singing protesters have gathered to challenge the economic policies of Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican Party, a tradition that was born out of the 2011 occupation of the state capitol, when tens of thousands gathered to protest Act 10, a law that cut collective bargaining rights for unions and municipal employees across the state.

    Since that time, small numbers have gathered every weekday from 12-1 p.m. to sing a few songs, including “We Shall Overcome” and “If I Had a Hammer.” The arrests, instead of dissuading protests, appear to have sparked a renewed interest in the tradition.

    “I go to solidarity sing-alongs all the time. I was arrested yesterday, my husband was arrested yesterday. I know those people, they are great people,” said Chris McDonough, a member of the Wisconsin Grassroots Network, to Mint Press News. “We are a diverse group without a leader that strongly believes in First Amendment rights. We never know who is going to show up and we don’t exclude anybody.”


    Solidarity sing-alongs under attack

    The bulk of the roughly 166 citations that have been issued thus far have been dismissed, although the frequency of the arrests increased sharply this week. For months, participants say that the singing was allowed to happen with little to no police interference.

    “We played instruments inside and outside. We generally had no problems,” said McDonough, a frequent attendee. “Last September was when the problems started when a new chief of police was announced.”

    From then on, singing tunes suddenly became a punishable offense. The state Department of Administration claims that the protesters need permits for groups larger than 20.

    “If the noontime singers would get a permit, then they could continue their activities without any arrests or citations. They are the only group being cited as they are the only group who has not applied for a permit for their regularly scheduled events at the Capitol rotunda. The question to ask is why they refuse to apply for a permit,” department spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said.

    Walker’s opponents beg to disagree, claiming that this is the just latest move by his administration to quell dissent.

    “I think it’s part of an overall mission to suppress the voice of the people. It’s of course a very dramatic thing to have the center of political power not being a place of public access. It’s a dramatic illustration of the suppression of democracy. The opponents of the protest are trying to suppress it,” said Nathan Timm, director of the Wisconsin Grassroots Network, to Mint Press News.

    Wisconsin Public Radio reports that if convicted, individuals issued citations would have to pay a fine of $200.50.


    Economic deterioration: The roots of the protests

    The protests have grown with the bevy of data showing that Wisconsin’s economy has taken a nosedive since Walker came into office in 2011.

    According to a recent economic report from the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future, the Badger State has trailed the national pace of private-sector job creation for 26 consecutive months, including the months that Walker has been in office.

    “My husband is a union member, both of us have worked for corporate America for the majority of our lives. Then my husband became a county worker and started his union. We have been through several layoffs and pretty much lost everything,” McDonough said.

    Things were made much worse with the passage of Act 10, which limited or eliminated collective bargaining for thousands.

    “We had just won the Super Bowl — the Packers are very popular in this state. We were at a high point, everyone was happy, then boom everything changed,” McDonough said.

    Walker trumpeted the bill as an achievement that would help attract new businesses, promising to create 250,000 new jobs for his constituency. Thus far, he’s fallen well short of that goal.

    “The economic situation is abysmal and it’s at two levels. There has been a lot of focus on how horrendous the job creation has been. The quality of the jobs have declined as well. We are losing manufacturing, traditional middle class jobs and union positions resulting in an unwinding of the economy,” said Dr. Robert Kraig, director of Citizen Action Wisconsin, in a statement to Mint Press News. “You need to have a strong and vibrant middle class in order to have a successful economy.”

    Additionally, wages have taken a tumble across the state. Using U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in March that private-sector wages in Wisconsin have fallen 2 percent annually, roughly twice the national average. Average wages in Wisconsin had the 45th-worst ranking out of 50 states.

    “I can tell you the pay for teachers is unbelievably low. Some teachers are paid just $30,000 per year here in Madison. These people are highly educated and very poorly compensated. It’s devastated the place,” McDonough said.

    It’s all taken a toll on Walker’s approval rating, which has dipped below 50 percent, according to a July poll conducted by Marquette University School of Law.

    Walker’s office declined Mint Press News’ request for comment. The Department of Access did not immediately respond to Mint Press News’ request for an interview.

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