Irving Smith has dug in his heels on the free-speech issue. He says he isn't quitting the Solidarity Sing Along until the Capitol police stop arresting and fining singers.
"If they would drop all the charges and just let us come in here and sing every day or let anybody come in here and have their freedom of speech any time they want, I’d go to California and hang out with my aunt for a little while," says the wiry 55-year-old former Marine.
Smith's craggy face has become one of the most pervasive images of the crackdown at the state Capitol. He’s placed himself squarely in the middle of the noon-time singalong protesting Gov. Scott Walker's administration, and he’s been handcuffed and hauled to the Capitol basement for “processing” at least 10 times since police began systematically arresting singers on July 24.
As of Aug. 15, the last day for which the Department of Administration provided records, Smith has racked up 49 citations this year at $200.50 a crack, mostly for taking part in an assembly without a permit. That’s more than any other regular participant in the anti-Scott Walker songfest.
While court rulings and other factors have prompted prosecutors to dismiss many citations that have been issued to protesters, the remainder of the cases — except for a couple of convictions for chalking on Capitol sidewalks — remain tied up in court. Protesters have vowed to see their cases, numbering more than 300 since July 24 alone, through to jury trials. A legal defense fund has been started on their behalf.
While many supporters of Gov. Scott Walker have portrayed the solidarity singers as ne'er-do-wells, Smith might be seen as a prime target: a guy who scrapes by doing odd jobs and lives in a tent.
But he sees his current role in life as a First Amendment fighter.
“I just happen to be in a unique situation right now where I can be here and do this and stand up for freedom of speech because they don’t have any way to hurt me,” he says. “I don’t have any material things for them to try to take away from me. Unless they can lock me up in jail, kill me or change the constitution there’s nothing they can do to me.”
While Smith is at the top of the list in terms of the number of citations handed out this year, two other protesters are also facing thousands in fines.
Brandon Barwick, 29, has collected about 34 citations since Capitol Police Chief David Erwin began his campaign to clear protesters from the Capitol last year. Barwick, a musician, became a target for serving as the conductor of the group.
A few weeks ago, he took a break from the singalong because he got “quite burnt out from things,” but he remains optimistic that the latest crackdown will boost efforts against the heavy-handed police tactics and build more anti-Walker activism, particularly among university students.
“Right now, we’re having a ton of younger people come,” he says. “Our numbers have been just gargantuan for the last six weeks, which is great. And now that school’s started again, I’m really looking forward to it.”
With 26 citations just this year, including citations for chalking on Capitol sidewalks that amount to about $9,000 in fines, Bart Munger is the third-most ticketed participant of the singalongs. He was in the news last year when police began hand-delivering citations to protesters’ homes. For reasons that remain unclear, police decided to deliver Munger’s citation to his workplace, which he saw as an intimidation tactic.
But unlike Smith and Barwick, Munger, a 52-year-old UW physical plant employee, doesn't organize or conduct the singalong and is usually seen singing at the periphery of the group.
“I’m not a leader,” he says. “I’m just some guy the police like to pick on,” he says.