By Nicole Desautels Schulte and Edward Kuharski
It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.
On the same day that a Russian court found three women guilty of “hooliganism” and sentenced them to prison for a “punk prayer” stunt in which they spoke out against Russian President Vladimir Putin, a crackdown on dissent continued to play out in Wisconsin, where Free Speech rights have been suppressed in the state capitol building for eighteen consecutive months by the Wisconsin Department of Administration.
The ‘Pussy Riot’ story received heavy media coverage around the world, and sparked protests in support of the women in at least eight major cities. Six people were arrested at a NYC protest for blocking traffic and wearing face masks. A US State Department spokeswoman even weighed in, saying she was “concerned about both the verdict and the disproportionate sentences… and the negative impact on freedom of expression in Russia.”
In front of the Wisconsin capitol last Friday, Jeremy Ryan (aka Segway Jeremy), a peaceful activist opposed to Governor Scott Walker’s radical right-wing agenda, spoke about a court appearance he’d had earlier in the day.
Ryan has been issued 34 citations in the capitol over the past year and a half, most for holding signs during meetings or quietly filming from the visitors’ galleries during legislative sessions. His two most recent citations were for filming from the gallery of the Senate during the last session and for chanting in the hallway outside the Capitol Press Room.
Until last Friday, citations issued by Capitol Police were adjudicated through normal channels; they were referred to the local DA for possible prosecution in Circuit Court and eventually dismissed by the DA’s office for lack of evidence or appropriateness in almost every case.
At a scheduled pre-trial conference regarding the latest two charges, Ryan went to the usual place in the Dane County Courthouse to check in, but the usual procedure ended there. Instead of meeting with an Assistant District Attorney to discuss whether the cases would go forward, he was directed to meet instead with a prosecutor from the State Attorney General’s office, an Assistant AG who had actually come to the Courthouse specifically to take charge of these two low-level civil cases, cases frequently referred to as “the equivalent of parking tickets.”
Initial inquiries tentatively confirm that this is an unprecedented, and possibly extralegal use of the prosecutorial powers of the Attorney General. Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne himself expressed surprise at the move when reached by phone yesterday morning. He acknowledged that his office had been contacted by the DOA to arrange a meeting to discuss the handling of tickets issued in the capitol, but that meeting hadn’t yet taken place. Legal or not, it represents a new program of offensive measures to suppress dissent and free exercise of rights guaranteed by both the US and the Wisconsin Constitutions.
Commenting on the maneuver, a local legal scholar noted, “…under the extreme separation of powers argument that the WI Supreme Court used to uphold the collective bargaining bill last year, an argument that the DOJ itself advanced, the courts have no power to enforce rules of the Legislature under which most of these tickets have been issued.”
He went on to explain, “The Capitol Police are part of the Department of Administration. When the WI Supreme Court threw out the challenge to the collective bargaining bill, it did so using an extreme separation of powers argument: the Judiciary does not have the power to enforce laws governing the behavior of the Legislature. By this same argument the Capitol Police, as agents of the Administration, should not have jurisdiction in Legislative chambers, and courts should not have the power to enforce penalties for violating Legislative rules.”
In late July, the Wisconsin Department of Administration brought in David Erwin to head the Capitol Police Department. Erwin, who previously served with Gov. Scott Walker’s Dignitary Protection Unit, has a background with the Wisconsin State Patrol and the U.S. Marine Corps. Rumors have swirled around the halls of the capitol in recent weeks about the new chief and what his stance might be when dealing with the ongoing protests of Walker and his Koch-sponsored agenda. There were early signs that the DOA would be instituting an intensified crackdown: in the weeks prior to the announcement of Erwin’s taking charge, Capitol Police made a show of taking detailed notes on daily protesters, photographing them and approaching individuals to ask them why they were in the Capitol building.
Most of these efforts to intimidate protesting citizens occurred during the local daily equivalent of Pussy Riot singing in church — the Solidarity Sing Along. The SSA is made up of a group of citizens who gather every weekday in the Capitol rotunda at the noon hour to sing protest songs, many of them with new lyrics pointedly focused on Gov. Walker and the Republican regime’s excesses.
Erwin’s first move was to militarize the police force; new, State Trooper-style uniforms and brimmed hats are on order for the force (presumably taxpayer funded). New rules for officers, such as no facial hair, agility testing and military-style discipline, including a requirement to salute the Chief, have been reported.
Several calls for comment have been made to the office of the Capitol Police Chief and the Department of Administration. To date, there has been no response.
Last week, Veterans for Peace activist Steve Books was arrested for chalking on the public sidewalk in front of the capitol, something he has been doing without incident for the past year. His message: “This is far, far from over.” His arrest sparked a “ChalkFest” event the following day, with dozens of friends coming out to chalk the walk in solidarity with Books. There have been no subsequent arrests for chalking, but a smaller group who left a few choice messages on the capitol sidewalk the night of Books’ arrest were confronted by Capitol Police in squad cars who issued stern warnings that any further chalking would also bring citations.
The escalation in efforts to intimidate and suppress perfectly legal, constitutionally protected activities continues. On the same day that Ryan’s cases were taken out of the hands of our local elected District Attorney, we learned that Mr. Books had been informed that his charge of Disorderly Conduct for chalking on the public sidewalk was being upgraded to a charge of graffiti on state property. No word yet on whether his case will be redirected through the Attorney General’s office as well.
Photos by Nicole Desautels Schulte unless otherwise noted.