The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats were for occupying capitols before they were against it

Protesters gather for the "We Are Wisconsin" rally at the State Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Nov. 19, 2011. (Rick Wood/AP)

“Thousands of protesters rushed to the … Capitol Wednesday night, forcing their way through doors, crawling through windows and jamming corridors.” That is how one newspaper described the storming of the Capitol — not the one in Washington last week, but the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., a decade ago.

Back then, thousands of pro-union activists — many bused in from out of state — rampaged through the historic building in an effort to stop a vote on collective bargaining reform legislation. So, when I saw the images of a pro-Trump mob rampaging through the U.S. Capitol last week, my first thought was: What is Scott Walker thinking right now?

“It’s like I’m having PTSD from a decade ago,” the former Republican governor of Wisconsin texted me.

Most conservatives have condemned the right-wing mob that assaulted the U.S. Capitol. But 10 years ago, Democrats embraced the left-wing mob that occupied the state Capitol in Madison. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) praised the occupiers for an “impressive show of democracy in action” and tweeted as they assaulted the Capitol that she continued “to stand in solidarity” with the union activists. In other words, Democrats were for occupying capitols before they were against it.

Walker and I co-wrote a book, “Unintimidated‚” in which we described the attack on the Capitol in Madison. “Standing on the capitol steps at dusk, [Secretary of Administration] Mike Huebsch watched as an army of thousands formed on State Street and began marching toward him,” we wrote. “Soon they had descended on the building, banging on the doors and windows, chanting, ‘Let us in! Let us in!’ ­The small contingent of capitol police was quickly overwhelmed. Protesters ripped the hinges of an antique oak door at the State Street entrance and streamed inside. Mike watched in disbelief as the window to Democratic Representative Cory Mason’s office opened right in front of him and protesters began crawling into the building. Once inside, they began unlocking doors and bathroom windows until a sea of thousands had flooded the capitol.”

The police retreated in the face of the horde, giving up the first floor, then the second. “The protesters ran amok, chanting ‘­This is our house!’ and ‘This is what democracy looks like!’ ” we wrote. “And they then began searching for the Republican senators who had dared to defy the will of the unions.” As the crowd scoured the building looking for the offending legislators, police sneaked them out through an underground tunnel to a government building across the street. But a Democratic representative posted on social media that the Republican senators were escaping through the tunnels, so when the senators came up into the lobby, the mob was there waiting for them. ­

“The tall windows that framed the lobby were plastered with people yelling and banging on the glass,” we wrote. “They were trapped. ­The senators hid under a stairwell, out of view, while the police ordered a city bus to pull up in front of the building. Officers then formed a human wall on the sidewalk, parting the sea of protesters and creating a pathway for the senators to reach the bus.” ­Once the senators were on board, “the mob on the street began punching the windows and shaking the vehicle. … The police told the senators and staff inside to keep their heads down in case a window shattered.”

Thankfully, no one was killed. But during the course of the occupation, Walker received a steady stream of death threats against him and his wife, including one that promised to “gut her like a deer” and one threatening to kill his sons. Police found dozens of .22-caliber bullets scattered across the Capitol grounds. The occupiers drew chalk outlines of fake dead bodies etched with Walker’s name on the floor, and carried signs that read “Death to tyrants,” “The only good Republican is a dead Republican” and one with picture of him in crosshairs with the words, “Don’t retreat, Reload.”

I asked Walker this week what lessons we might take from the two occupations. “On the positive side,” he said, “the angry mobs did not deter elected officials from their responsibilities in either instance.” The Wisconsin legislature approved Walker’s bill in 2011, just as Congress reconvened to certify Joe Biden’s victory last week.

The good news is that our democracy has once again proved itself resilient against mob rule. The bad news is that some on the right now emulate the left-wing mob Nancy Pelosi celebrated and conservatives rightfully condemned in Madison a decade ago. That will be among President Trump’s most shameful legacies.

Early on Jan. 6, The Post's Kate Woodsome saw signs of violence hours before thousands of President Trump's loyalists besieged the Capitol. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: John Minchillo/AP/The Washington Post)

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