Hundreds of "solidarity singers" congregated in the Wisconsin capitol Monday to sing politicized Christmas songs and challenge new Walker administration rules for protests in the building.
Governor Scott Walker's Department of Administration (DOA) released a policy this month announcing new limits on demonstrations in and around the state capitol, the site of massive protests earlier this year.
Among other limits, the policy defines a gathering of four or more people as a "rally" requiring a permit, which must be obtained 72 hours in advance, and gives the state discretion about whether to charge rally organizers for law enforcement expenses at a fee of $50 per officer, per hour. The state may require advance payment of those charges and there is no fee exception for indigent protesters. Legal observers have criticized the new rules, and the ACLU of Wisconsin is considering legal action.
The rules officially took effect Friday. Monday's gathering was a test of how they would be enforced, as well as a protest against the perceived effort to suppress dissent.
A Merry Little Recall
Since early this year, citizens have gathered in the capitol rotunda every day at noon to sing popular songs with lyrics criticizing Governor Walker's policies. As few as 15 and as many as 100 typically attend the sing-alongs, but with citizens outraged over the DOA's new policies, hundreds more gathered at Monday's event.
Some attendees handed-out fake "permits" -- leaflets with the Wisconsin Constitution's language on the right to peaceably assemble -- but organizers refused to get permits from the state.
The capitol had a festive atmosphere, with giant letters spelling "Recall Walker" and long streamers that read "Solidarity Sing-Along" and "WWBD?" ("what would Bob LaFollette do") hung from balconies. Protesters gathered around the twinkling, 40-foot-tall Christmas tree in the center of the rotunda and sang holiday-themed songs like "Have Ourselves a Merry Little Recall" (to the tune of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas") and "Make Him Go" (to the tune of "Let It Snow").
To the tune of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," they sang "Take Back Our Town:" "You better speak out / No time to be shy / There's mischief about / Its maker is sly / Walker has invaded our town" and "He's primed by ALEC tycoons / Aligned with brothers Koch / His funding comes from billionaires / Who don't care if we go broke."
No Arrests, No Fees
The singers were unsure whether, or how, the new policy would be enforced against them.
Individuals who attended information sessions about the new policy said they believed "rallies" held without permits could make organizers subject to arrest. Governor Walker's appointed DOA spokesperson Jocelyn Webster insisted on Friday that no arrests would be made under the new rules. Webster, who worked under Karl Rove in the George W. Bush White House and was involved in the Pentagon Pundits scandal, said "there's a fundamental misunderstanding of this policy if there was a belief arrests were going to stem from this policy."
If capitol police order an end to an unpermitted rally and protesters refuse, it is unknown whether officers would issue arrests for disorderly conduct or other charges. The 10 to 15 capitol police officers circulating through the crowd on Monday did not interfere with the event.
According to the terms of the rules, "rally" organizers could be obligated to pay $50 per hour for the presence of each capitol police officer. In this case, had the policy been enforced, the singers would have been obligated to pay $500 to $750 per hour for the opportunity to sing politicized holiday carols around a Christmas tree.
The singers plan to continue meeting each day at noon, and will celebrate the 250th "Solidarity Sing-Along" on December 29.