Speak Out, No Permit Required

Today marks the last day of summer break for Madison teachers. I was at school preparing for next week’s arrival of students, but at 11:30, I found myself glancing up at my classroom clock more and more frequently. It felt like there was some place else I ought to be. Two recent events motivated me to postpone my work and head down to the Capitol for the noon Solidarity Sing Along.

Nora Cusack is placed under arrest for observing, photo courtesy of Erin Proctor, MTI

Nora Cusack is placed under arrest for observing, photo courtesy of Erin Proctor, MTI

The first of these events occurred on Thursday, August 22nd, when Nora Cusack was arrested for observing the Sing Along. She was not singing; she simply watched from above with an 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of paper that said, “I am observing only.” The Wisconsin Department of Administration (DOA) had declared earlier in August that people would not be arrested for simply observing the goings on at the Capitol. Cusack did not clap, tap her feet, hum, or participate in any way other than standing and holding her message. She was told this was participation and was handcuffed and taken down to the basement to be processed. Cusack was the only person arrested that day

Cusack’s testimony was reason enough to wonder what was going on in our State Capitol, but events got even more out of hand on Monday, August 26th when the Capitol Police took their policing to an unprecedented level of aggression. The Capitol Police held CJ Terrell in a compliance hold that inflicted significant pain as he remained passive in a seated position. But, the video that was even more shocking was the take down of CJ’s brother, Damon Terrell. As Terrell backed up in a passive stance, he could be seen waving his hands and saying, “No, no. This isn’t illegal.” The video then shows the Capitol Police tackling Terrell to the marble ground.  The finishing blow came later that day when JS Online reported that Terrell could potentially face felony charges for battery of a police officer.

As I made my way to the Capitol, I had time to reflect. For more than two years, people spent their noon hours singing songs about justice and freedom, but peace was maintained. This changed as Chief Tubbs, who managed protesters and his police force in a reasonable, respectful manner, was replaced by Chief Erwin, who uses militaristic and strong-armed tactics. This was the obvious beginning of this storm.  At the heart of this storm, is the unconstitutional permit policy itself.

Bert Zipperer and Amy Noble leaving in handcuffs, photo courtesy of Erin Proctor, MTI.

Bert Zipperer and Amy Noble leaving in handcuffs, photo courtesy of Erin Proctor, MTI.

“Why don’t they just get a permit?” is a question frequently asked by opponents of the Solidarity Sing Along. In fact, on August 1st, NBC 15 even took out a permit to make a point about just how easy it is. However, not only should a permit not be required of the singers, a permit could actually open the group up to even greater trouble.

The First Amendment reads,

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

It is clear that a law requiring a person to get a permit to exercise their freedom of speech is an abridgment of that right. Logic dictates that a right is not a right if permission has to be asked. The First Amendment also guarantees that people have the right both to peaceably assemble and to petition their government when they have a grievance. This, by definition, is the Solidarity Sing Along, who has been peaceably assembling as a means to express their discontent with the current state government.

After 10 arrests, the rotunda is still full, photo courtesy of Leslie Peterson.

After 10 arrests, the rotunda is still full, photo courtesy of Leslie Peterson.

Even without these Constitutional guarantees, a permit is not the answer. Under the permit policy, any group seeking to congregate in the rotunda must get a permit 72 hours in advance of the event. With the Solidarity Sing Along, many questions immediately arise. There really is no designated group. It is an informal collection of individuals that varies from day to day. Not only do participants come and go, but the person leading the songs is flexible as well. The answer to who belongs to this group is both simple and complicated – whoever shows up. So, exactly who is required to get the permit?

Even more problematic is the question of liability. On page fifteen of the Wisconsin State Facilities Access Policy is a section on “Liability Insurance and Bonds.” It reads,

“As explained in sections II-(D) through II-(F) of this policy any individual or organization using any State facility, including the Capitol or Capitol Lawn (State Capital Park) will be responsible for all suits, damages, claims, or liabilities due to a personal injury or damage to or loss of property and for the cost of any damages incurred as a result of its event or exhibit.”

These are not words to be taken lightly, especially since it is the DOA determining those damages. While the Solidarity Sing Along has taken place for two years without serious incident until recently, there have been some close calls. An example of this happened on June 21st, 2011, when singers were harassed by Tea Party members, including former State Senator, David Zien. One tea party member punched a Solidarity Sing Along member and Zien wheeled around the rotunda floor without regard for people’s property or toes. Or we could use Terrell as an example of things that can go wrong. An officer was allegedly injured during this incident and Terrell could have easily been injured as well as a result of police intervention. In each of these cases, the access policy would hold the permit holders liable. This policy puts the permit holder at risk for the behavior of any person who enters the Capitol doors during the time of the permit. With a group as fluid as the Solidarity Sing Along, this presents an incalculable risk. To put it simply, the permit policy makes freedom anything but free.

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Me, Bert Zipperer, and Amy Noble prior to their arrests, photo courtesy of Leslie Peterson

It was with this in mind that I spent my last, precious summer moments in the Capitol rotunda among friends. The first song began as I entered the rotunda. I linked hands with my MTI brothers and sisters as Chief Erwin came on the loud speaker and declared the assembly an unlawful event. My mind went immediately to a police state, but the singing continued. When the MTI members to the left and right of me stepped out in cuffs, I stepped in and tightened the circle. I did my best to stand proud and raise my voice peacefully in song, because it was the right thing to do. The freedoms guaranteed to us in the United States Constitution will only be ours if we continue to fight for them.

“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a communist.

Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

-Martin Niemoller

Please continue to speak out. No permit required.


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