Hundreds of protesters remained at the state Capitol overnight without incident and were not arrested, after police spent most of Sunday meeting with union leaders and encouraging protesters to leave voluntarily and peacefully.
But as protester numbers dwindled from several thousand to a few hundred, police announced those who remained could stay.
“If you’re here, you can stay,” Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs said.
Protesters were limited to the ground floor while crews gave the building an “extensive cleaning.” No bedrolls or backpacks will be allowed if protesters come back into the Capitol when the building reopens at 8 a.m. today, Tubbs said.
Tubbs, who said he’s met with union leaders every day since the protests began, said permission to stay overnight in the Capitol will be re-evaluated every day.
Gregory Gelembiuk, a zoology teaching assistant at UW-Madison, said he was happy protesters were allowed stay the night. Gelembiuk said he’s stayed over a couple of nights since the protests began — spending one waiting until 6:30 a.m. to give testimony to the state Assembly — and was prepared to get arrested Sunday.
Civil disobedience becomes imperative when a rights issue is so important, he said, calling the decision by Tubbs an “incremental success.”
Throughout the afternoon as the 4 p.m. deadline to clear the Capitol drew close, speakers spoke emotionally about the need for nonviolence.
“I have felt the sting of hatred so deep that it almost ripped my soul in half,” protester Damon Terrell said in tears as he addressed the crowd Sunday. “Those that feel that same anger, that would be torn apart by that same hatred of their fellow man, try one thing for me. Don’t do it. Be stronger than yourself. Rise above your own emotions.”
Rally organizers told protesters who would be willing to be arrested as an act of civil disobedience to move to the first floor of the Capitol. Those who wanted to leave were directed to the ground floor and the State Street entrance.
Those determined to stay were prepared: Many had a lawyer’s phone number written in marker on their arms in case of arrest.
Jean Ross, a nurse from Minnesota and a president of National Nurses United, said she was ready to be arrested Sunday.
“I have a toothbrush, I have a separate pair of underwear, I’ll be fine,” she said. “The fight of the people in this state is everyone’s fight. I think it’s a statement that people really do need to make.”
But shortly after the 4 p.m. deadline, state officials said there would be no forcible removal of protesters inside.
“A decision has been made to do what they’ve been doing all week long, and that is to do everything to keep things peaceful and keep people safe,” said Peg Schmidt, spokeswoman for the police command in the Capitol. “There’s not going to be any forcible removal.”
But officials still wanted to clear the building for cleaning.
“We are still looking for voluntary compliance and for people to leave because we believe the cleaning operation is important,” Schmidt said. “There’s been incredible cooperation all along of everybody who’s been here.”
Earlier, dozens of ministers, rabbis, and priests joined workers and students from across the state, saying they would risk arrest to protest the closing of the Capitol to the public.
“I think that this action tonight is silencing the peoples’ voice,” said Rabbi Renee Bauer, of the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South-Central Wisconsin. “Silencing the minority, or the people with less power, is a real moral problem. This feels like it’s about shutting down the peaceful demonstration one step at a time.”
“This is a critical moment for Wisconsin and for so many states,” said Rev. Leah Lonsbury of Memorial United Church of Christ in Madison. “Clearly, this is about far more than a budget.”
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