Protesters 1

Miles Kristan, center left, and C.J. Terrell walk arm-in-arm after Kristan met with Madison police over an altercation with state Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester. Kristan is accused of pouring a beer on the legislator's head in protest.

CRAIG SCHREINER - State Journal

When news broke that a protester had poured beer over the head of a prominent Republican legislator last week, staffers and lawmakers immediately began playing a game of "guess who."

Was it "Segway Jeremy" or "Pink Slip Miles"? Maybe C.J. or Arthur or Bridgette? Certainly, most agreed, it was one of the usual suspects.

Thousands of people descended on the state Capitol in February and March, crowding the streets and filling the rotunda in opposition to Gov. Scott Walker's collective bargaining bill. But in the past six months those crowds have given way to a small but dedicated band of 20-something protesters who routinely disrupt meetings, harangue individual Republican lawmakers, stage publicity stunts and take video of nearly everything they do.

The group -- led unofficially by about a half-dozen "regulars" -- has exasperated Capitol law enforcement and Republican lawmakers. But they also have frustrated Democratic lawmakers, interrupting their speeches and getting into shouting matches with them during committee meetings.

Many Democrats feel the group is actually hurting their efforts to fight Republican legislation.

"We really don't need bad behavior taking attention away from what Walker is doing," said state Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison. "We need to focus on recalling him. Pouring beer on someone doesn't help the cause."

The beer incident

Miles Kristan, 26, is accused of entering Madison's Inn on the Park bar on Sept. 14, yelling something like "damned Republicans" and pouring a beer on the head of state Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and two other GOP lawmakers.

Vos had long been a target of Kristan's. But until the beer incident, Kristan never actually invaded the Republican leader's personal space.

"It was only a matter of time," said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau. "To many of us, this is an expected escalation."

Fitzgerald is a frequent target of protesters. They follow him during parades and videotape him in an effort to catch something controversial. Once, a protester even chased him into a bank, blasting a horn in Fitzgerald's ear the whole way.

"I think they're trying to get a lawmaker to take a swing at them," he said. "And it's really hard to not take a swing at someone when they're blowing a horn in your ear."

Kristan said he could not talk about the beer incident but said he didn't consider the action violent. "I would say it is equivalent to throwing fruit at someone," he said.

Uncivil disobedience

But to many lawmakers, the altercation is an example of a growing problem with the young protesters. The group considers itself engaged in civil disobedience. But critics point out that pouring beer on someone or bike-locking your neck to a railing is not exactly on par with lying in front of tanks in Tiananmen Square.

"The goal is usually to be like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr.," said Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha. "Part of what we are trying to do is win the battle of public opinion, and that kind of thing isn't helping."

The protesters have spent the past few months disrupting meetings and legislative sessions, protesting everything from the governor's budget to Senate and Assembly rules that prohibit filming from the public galleries.

Earlier this month, Barca was in the middle of delivering a speech on jobs from the Assembly floor when a protest broke out in the gallery. Several protesters had been filming the session, which is not allowed by Assembly rules. Capitol Police forcibly removed them from the gallery, creating a ruckus.

One of leaders of the ongoing protest, Jeremy Ryan, 23, was removed that day. He said he's aware that some Democrats are upset with the group.

"But the clergy were critical of MLK, too," he said. "Not that I'm comparing myself to MLK, but I think it fits in this case. Some Democrats can't see far down the road."

The conservative MacIver Institute, which employs reporters to cover news at the Capitol and posts stories and videos online, has had several run-ins with the constant protesters.

"The truth is these guys have been useful idiots for the left for a long time, and now they're not," said Brian Fraley, MacIver spokesman.

Several conservatives believe the protesters have been coddled by the Dane County District Attorney's Office and fear the beer incident is just another step toward a violent altercation.

"My biggest concern is the prosecutors have not acted swiftly enough and now things are getting worse," said state Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc. "Do we have to wait until things turn physical?"

Most citations for this group of protesters have been dismissed.

For example, according to the court system's online records, police have issued Ryan 14 citations this year, most of which were for disorderly conduct. He has contested all the citations, and 10 of them were dismissed. His one conviction, for prohibited conduct, came when he did not show up for a court date. Three more citations are pending.

Kristan has had three convictions. Madison police cited him for misdemeanor disorderly conduct in the beer incident, but he has not been charged. Kristan said he has a court date scheduled for next month.

Dane County Deputy District Attorney Chris Freeman, who has overseen the cases, said Tuesday that his office has not been soft on the protesters. He said he judges each case individually. Several of them, he said, were dismissed because of ambiguity in the rules between the two houses of the Legislature.

"We have limited resources," Freeman said. "What's going on at the Capitol is important, but not of paramount concern. I have to decide if we have the time and resources to pursue each case."

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