Capitol Police Chief David Erwin is ramping up the pressure on the Solidarity Singers, targeting those who lead the weekday singalongs.
“They’re coming after people for taking leadership roles,” says Brandon Barwick, who has been the main organizer and musical conductor for the group for the past four months.
Last week, Barwick received three citations via certified mail, adding to the five he’s already received, for a grand total of $1,667 in fines, which he’s fighting in court.
Also receiving a citation was Daithi Wolfe, who often conducts the well-attended Friday singalongs that take place outdoors. He agreed to conduct one inside the Capitol rotunda on Oct. 8, however, when Barwick was out of town.
The singalongs take place inside the Capitol rotunda from Monday through Thursday unless someone else has already obtained a permit to use the area.
Erwin has been adamant that the Solidarity Sing Along obtain permits to sing in the Capitol. It is part of a larger effort by him to restrict the activities of protesters in the Capitol in the wake of complaints about obnoxious protesters from lawmakers and staffers -- particularly supporters of Gov. Scott Walker.
Erwin portrayed it as a widespread problem, but police reports show that just one person was responsible for most of the incidents.
Singalong members, most of whom are gray-haired retirees or public employees on their lunch hours, have refused to apply for permits, citing concerns about liability exposure contained in the permit policy and their belief that the constitution allows for people to petition the government without first getting approval from the government. They also say the group has no real structure or leadership, so there’s no one in a position to sign for a permit.
Erwin, who shortly after his appointment in July announced that he was going to crack down on protesters, began to do so on Sept. 5, issuing citations to people holding signs in the public areas of the Capitol. When a Dane County judge ruled that people could legally carry signs, Erwin began having his officers cite protesters for other things, like obstructing access or passageways or hanging banners over railings.
(For further background about Erwin's crackdown, here is a detailed look I took last month.)
Since mid-September, most of the citations have been issued under a catch-all administrative code – 2.14 (2) (v) – governing behavior during gatherings and rallies.
“They won’t tell me what they’re for,” says Barwick. “When you type in the administrative code there’s a whole long paragraph of things that it could be classified as. So my assumption is that it’s for conducting the singalong.”
Barwick says he asked officers why he was being cited but was told, “You’re going to have to wait until your court date.”
Barwick says not only are police infringing on constitutional rights to petition the government, but are also handing out tickets in an inconsistent and capricious manner, handing out repeated citations to some, but not to others. He maintains that the group is unstructured, with no real structure or leadership and that he’s merely a participant.
“How would I know what I did when there was like 100 other people that day that did the same thing that I did, and none of them got a citation,” he says.
So the group is conducting an experiment, designating different conductors to see if they get tickets. On Monday, Steve Burns, who founded the singalong in March 2011, led the group. If he were issued a ticket, it would likely show up in his mail this week, so it's unclear if he was cited. But on Wednesday, Irving Smith conducted the group. He was handed a $200.50 ticket for obstructing access or passageways without a permit as he left the Capitol.
"I guess if you get a permit it's legal to obstruct access/passage," he quipped.
He says he's contacting the National Lawyers Guild's Madison chapter, which is providing attorneys for several people who have been cited.
"They can lock me up but they’re never going to get any money," he says.
A Department of Administration spokeswoman didn't return calls Wednesday seeking comment about the tickets given to singalong conductors.
Between Sept. 5, when the crackdown began, and Oct. 11, police have handed out 57 citations to 20 people, according to data provided by the state Department of Administration. Police have handed out several more citations since then.
All those who were issued citations are seeking jury trials, most with the help of attorneys working for free. Observers expect the situation to eventually result in civil litigation, which the ACLU and various civil rights attorneys are considering.
Meanwhile, attendance at the singalongs has picked up as the group heads toward its 500th event, which happens on Election Day on Nov. 6.
“Whenever word gets out that people have received citations, the next day and a couple of days after are bigger turnouts,” Barwick says.