Pro-union protesters leave Wisconsin Capitol after 17-day sit-in

The Associated Press
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 11:07 PM

MADISON, Wis. -- Pro-union protesters who had been camping out at the Wisconsin Capitol for 17 days vacated the building peacefully late Thursday after a judge ordered the building closed at night but ruled the state was wrong to restrict access to the building during the day.

With a group hug, and singing "Solidarity Forever," about 50 protesters grabbed their sleeping bags, pillows and drums and left through two rows of Democratic state lawmakers and others who thanked them for their efforts.

Police confirmed that all of the protesters had departed, and that there had been no arrests.

The peaceful departure came after two hours of back-and-forth exchanges between the police and demonstrators, who demanded to see the court order saying they had to leave.

University of Wisconsin-Madison Police Chief Susan Riseling read the order to the crowd, eliciting cheers when she read the judge's determination that the state had unconstitutionally restricted the public's access to the building. The Department of Administration, which operates the building, this week began restricting the number of protesters allowed in at any time.

It was the part of the judge's order saying protesters had to leave on Thursday night that caused consternation among the group. Former Attorney General Peggy Lautenschlager, who challenged the state's decision to limit building access, told them, "We won this battle."

But she also told the crowd they needed to leave.

Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs repeatedly urged the crowd to leave peacefully.

"I don't want to see anybody arrested," he said.

Ultimately, the protesters left without incident. At least one of them was still in a Capitol hallway after the others had departed as police scoured the building to look for stragglers.

"We decided we didn't want to stoop to the level of Scotty and his minions. We decided it would be best for our image to leave tonight peacefully and come back tomorrow," said Matt Rowe, 21, of Madison, carrying an armful of blankets after he left the building.

Protesters have been demonstrating in and around the Capitol building since Feb. 15 against a bill pushed by the state's new Republican governor, Scott Walker, that would strip most public employees of nearly all of their collective bargaining rights.

Walker contends that the legislation, which also calls for the public employees to cover more of the costs of their pension and health plans, is necessary to balance the state's budget and to give local municipalities the flexibility they need to deal with pending budget cuts.

Unions and Democrats say the bill is a blatant attempt to weaken the unions, which are an important part of the Democratic Party's power base.

The bill passed in the state Assembly but stalled in the state Senate because all 14 Democratic members skipped town two weeks ago, deny their Republican colleagues the quorum they need to vote on the issue.

© 2011 The Associated Press