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Singers continue long Wis. tradition of protest

Associated Press Modified: November 24, 2012 at 11:16 am •  Published: November 24, 2012

Walker said the move to limit collective bargaining was necessary to fix the state's $3.6 billion deficit. Democrats took it as a direct assault on unions, one of their core constituencies. Democrats responded by organizing a series of recalls efforts, including one targeting Walker. When the governor cruised to an easy victory, though, most opponents accepted their fate and went home.

But not the Capitol singers. Anywhere from 25 to 50 people — usually a handful of students joined by mostly middle-aged or retired people — still gather every day to sing protest songs for an hour.

Police initially reacted with a hands-off approach, arresting only a handful of belligerent protesters loosely associated with the group. However, the new Capitol police chief has begun cracking down by issuing scores of citations to group leaders, largely for failure to obtain a permit.

Department of Administration spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said virtually every other group that uses the Capitol has complied with the permit policy. She said the agency couldn't make an exception for the singers.

But Barwick and others refuse, saying they shouldn't need the government's permission to protest the government.

On a recent day, Barwick led about 50 people in song, singing selections that included "When We Make Peace," sung to the tune of "When the Saints Go Marching In," and "Scotty, We're Comin' for You."

Some people who work in the Capitol call the singing an unwelcome distraction that can be heard even through a closed door. And some protesters with loose ties to the singing circle have been arrested for screaming at employees. One protester regularly stood outside the Capitol press room, berating reporters and shouting insults about one reporter's recently deceased father.

Barwick, who says his group doesn't condone that sort of activity, said he can't control fringe participants who engage in harassing or criminal behavior.

State Sen. Robert Jauch, a 66-year-old Democrat, defends the singers' music as "the sweet sound of democracy." He said he too remembered the civil rights movement and anti-war movements of the 1960s and '70s, and how songs of those eras helped people sustain their causes.

But Republican state Rep. Stephen Nass said the singers have worn out their welcome with the endless noise.

"They come in and take over the rotunda and argue that it's free speech," he said. "But when they're disrupting visitors and school groups, that's not free speech. They should have to adhere to the same rules as everyone else."


Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)