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Wisconsin officials decide not to evict protesters from Capitol

Opponents of an anti-union bill can stay for now, police say; the Republican governor stands firm behind his proposal.

February 28, 2011|By Abby Sewell, Los Angeles Times
  • Demonstrators protest in Wisconsin's Capitol rotunda after they were given a deadline by the police to leave the building.
Demonstrators protest in Wisconsin's Capitol rotunda after they… (Scott Olson / Getty Images )

Reporting from Madison, Wis. — Wisconsin authorities backed away Sunday from a threat to evict hundreds of labor rights demonstrators who have occupied the state Capitol for nearly two weeks.

Hordes of union members, students and activists staged the sleep-in to dramatize opposition to Republican Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to eliminate collective bargaining for most government workers.

The state Department of Administration had announced Friday that the Capitol would close at 4 p.m. Sunday for cleaning and reopen at 8 a.m. Monday. As the deadline approached, some demonstrators left. But hundreds remained, preparing for arrest.

About 7 p.m., Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs said the remaining protesters could stay the night as long as they otherwise continued to abide by laws.

The Capitol sleep-in has been almost uniformly peaceful, with only a few arrests on minor charges, Tubbs said. Many police are sympathetic to the protesters' cause, although most public safety employees are exempt from the bill.

The measure passed the state Assembly on Friday, but the Senate has been stymied by the lack of a quorum: 14 Democrats fled to Illinois and say they won't return until Republicans agree to bargain.

So far, Walker is standing firm, contending that the legislation is needed to help state and local governments cut costs. He appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday to reiterate his position. The unions have agreed to pay more of their healthcare and pension costs, but that has not satisfied the governor.

Brian Austin, 40, an off-duty Madison Police Department detective and executive board member of the officers' union, was among those who stayed in the Capitol on Sunday night. Austin said it was "surreal" to be facing arrest after 15 years as a police officer.

"But it's because I'm a police officer that I'm here, and it's because I'm a parent" wanting to set a good example, he said.

abby.sewell@latimes.com

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