In the end, the group's decision was swayed because of what it felt Scott Walker wanted. About halfway through an hour-long discussion among the throng of protesters gathered inside the state Capitol Thursday night, a young man took his turn at addressing the group.
"Think about Scott Walker," he said. "What would he want us to do -- stay and be arrested or walk out in solidarity?"
At about 5:30 this afternoon, Dane County Judge John Albert concluded a two-day hearing by issuing an order that "unauthorized materials and people" needed to be vacated from the Capitol building. But he also ruled that restrictions on access imposed by the state Department of Administration were unconstitutional, and that full access to the building during normal hours must be restored by Monday, March 7.
The protesters, who numbered well more than 100 after an open door allowed several dozen people to flood in around 5:30 p.m. -- spent about an hour and a half awaiting particulars of the decision, followed by appeals from Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs and others, before holding the discussion that led to their decision to leave, at about 9 p.m. Through it all, dozens of police officers ringed the Rotunda, their ranks swelled from already high levels by an influx of additional officers around 7 p.m.
Early on, the sentiment was strongly against leaving. Tubbs stood among the demonstrators and implored them: "I am asking for voluntary compliance. I am asking you to cooperate and leave. I don't want to see anyone arrested, but if we have to take action, we'll take action."
Some members of the crowd responded defiantly. "Every time we cooperate, we just lose more and more of the building," said one demonstrator. Said another, a young man named Damon: "We've been repeatedly lied to and we've been repeatedly manipulated." Vowed Ruth Fox, a resident of northern Wisconsin who has been at the building all week, though she has stage 4 colo-rectal cancer, "I'm going to be the last one out."
The crowd members were told that they could not be found to be in violation of a court order until a court order was presented to them. This was still being prepared, and so the protesters waited.
During this interim, Madison historian Stu Levitan urged a group of protesters including Fox to consider what was best for the larger cause. "The goal of every movement is to advance the cause," he said, adding that "the more this turns into a drum circle" or seems like "a Phish concert" the less helpful it will be.
Fox unloaded: "This is not kids in a drum circle. This is kids that we raised. I am doing this out of respect for all these thousands of people out here. I respect you," she told Levitan, "but I am demanding respect for me and these" -- the young people around her -- "are the people who respect me."
Others in the crowd argued that Judge Albert's order was a victory of sorts. "It says Scott Walker broke the law," said protest coordinator Erika Wolf. "If the doors don't open tomorrow morning, they will be held in contempt."
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, Rep. Brett Hulsey and Rep. Kelda Roys came forward to urge the protesters to do what was asked of them and leave. Former state Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager explained the terms of the deal -- the DOA could restrict but not deny access through Monday; protesters could no longer stay overnight; and on Monday the building would have to return to normal hours and access.
UW Campus Police Chief Sue Riesling told the group "I have the same questions you do" as to particulars of the order. But she said that the DOA rules restricting access "have been declared unconstitutional, and I will not ever violate the constitution of the United States." Tubbs backed her up: "No one here has any intention of violating anyone's rights."
Addressing another concern raised by the group, Tubbs promised that the signs that adorn the building will be dealt with "in a very respectful way." Apparently the Wisconsin Historical Society has photographed the signs in place, and will preserve many of them, although it did appear likely they would soon be removed from where they hang.
The sentiment was swinging, and it was the group's perception of Walker's wishes that decided it. Organizer Wolf, after reiterating that Walker "wants us to get arrested" for breaking the law, said she didn't want to give him the satisfaction: "I want to claim the moral authority" that comes from not violating the court's decision.
Unknown to these protesters, Walker had at a 6 p.m. press conference laid the groundwork for turning arrests to his advantage. He said that while the majority of protesters over the last two and a half weeks have been "decent and respectful," there were other less savory elements, "a small minority trying to create problems and difficulties for the Capitol police."
By when it came down to it, even this small minority proved elusive, if not illusory. The crowd walked out of the building, singing "Solidarity Forever" and banging drums.
One small cluster of four people stuck around longer than the rest, but after about an hour they left too, according to Mitch Cooper, a Madison lawyer who was on hand as an observer. He says one member of this small group in particular found it difficult to leave, fearing it would be seen as a betrayal of the 14 Democratic Senators who have left the state.
But in the end, said Cooper, "They all left peacefully. They were no arrests, no swearing, no disturbances, just a complete peaceful, uneventful evacuation of the Capitol."
Take that, Scott Walker.