Capitol Police kept more than 1,000 protestors at bay Monday, locking down the statehouse and allowing only a few dozen inside to meet with lawmakers.
Officials with the Department of Administration said they closed the Capitol to help with the cleaning of the building and could not open the doors to the public because some protestors inside the rotunda refused to limit their activities to the ground floor.
The decision seemed to run counter to Capitol tradition and the spirit of the state Constitution, which says officials cannot prohibit individuals from entering the Capitol or its grounds. Those gathered outside were not happy. "My grandfather helped build this building," said LaVorn Dvorak, a retired social worker from Brooklyn, who was stuck outside for two hours in below-freezing temperatures. "I expect to be able to get in. Now they're telling us we can't get in to our own statehouse."
As Dvorak spoke, chants arose including "Let us in - please." And "Whose house?" "Our house!"
According to a DOA statement issued Monday, the decision to lock the building down seemed targeted at a "family respite center" on the first floor's north wing - the only group of protestors not on the ground floor.
"When the State Capitol closed at 4 p.m. last night, the majority of protestors voluntarily left the building as requested by the Capitol Police," the statement read. "Of those who remained, all but a few have voluntarily complied with the request of law enforcement to remain in a designed area of the building. Officers in the building are continuing to work with those few individuals to gain their compliance."
But Nicole Collazo-Santiago, a protester in the family center Monday, said the volunteers manning the center were asked to leave only once - early in the morning. After that, she said, officers left them alone.
In a letter Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin urged DOA Secretary Michael Huebsch to open the statehouse to the public.
"Prohibiting protestors on either side of the debate from entering the Capitol during normal business hours or during legislative hearings or sessions, while allowing others with ‘business' in the Capitol to enter, is manifestly content-based and, hence presumptively unconstitutional," read the letter.
The Capitol is typically open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays. But for the past two weeks, protesters have crammed into the rotunda to protest Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill, occupying the building 24 hours a day.
They have turned the historic building into a sort of protest village, complete with first aid centers, scheduled events and child care. Capitol Police started on Friday enforcing a new set of rules for the rotunda, most of them aimed at ending the camp out.
On Sunday, Capitol Police attempted to peacefully remove the remaining protesters. An ardent group refused to go and were still inside the building Monday. Most have complied with the new rules, including staying on the ground floor. A few have not, which officials said led to Monday's standoff.
But to those inside the rotunda, it seemed little effort was actually spent moving the handful of stray protestors down to the ground floor.
In a statement Monday, DOA officials said police started letting protesters into the building at 8 a.m., but there was no evidence of that until State Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, confronted police at around noon.
Pocan caused a ruckus when he tried to enter through a side door. He was joined by dozens of firefighters, many of them carrying signs in support of union workers.
"You can't stop the function of state government, just because Gov. Scott Walker says so," Pocan yelled through the half-open door.
Capitol Police allowed the representative and eight firefighters to enter and promised to find a way to let the rest enter the building in time for a hearing that Pocan was attempting to convene.
From that point on, officials allowed a small group of protestors inside the rotunda, as long as they had a lawmaker escort them from the entrance.