Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill protest in 2011. (Mark Danielson | CC BY-NC 2.0)
When a violent mob stormed the DC Capitol, breaking through police lines and crashing barriers, encouraged by President Donald Trump, to stop Congress from ratifying the election results, the minds of some Wisconsin Republicans immediately turned to the sustained but peaceful Act 10 protests at the Wisconsin Capitol in 2011.
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) tweeted: “The rule of law must be respected. Order must be restored. The United States Capitol needs to be cleared and secured,” followed by, “Learn the lessons from Wisconsin when liberal throngs stormed the State Capitol and took it over. If you do not clear them now, you will lose control for days if not weeks. More people will come, and it will get eminently more dangerous.”
Comparing Act 10 protests by teachers, firefighters and other public workers to Wednesday’s mob violence in D.C., Steineke doubled down. “Do you remember them climbing into Capitol windows? Do you recall legislators being evacuated by Swat teams because Cap police couldn’t guarantee our safety? Do you recall Dems in the legislature cheering them on as they occupied the Capitol? Do you recall the death threats? I do.”
Then-Gov. Scott Walker and state legislators on both sides of the aisle received threatening messages, six of which were investigated by the Department of Justice and one of which was prosecuted, according to an investigation by the Wisconsin State Journal. But Steineke’s depiction of the threatening atmosphere around the Act 10 protests does not match the memories of legislative Democrats who joined in the rallies, standing with workers objecting to a law that rolled back their rights and curtailed their livelihoods and who felt safe enough to bring their kids. Former Gov. Scott Walker had stated that the goal was to “drop the bomb,” and pass a budget repair bill before anyone could object without workers at the table and without time for feedback. The purpose of the protesters was to slow that down and get the word out about what was happening.
There was civil disobedience, but not violence or gunshots. The windows were used by Democratic legislators who moved their desks outside to hold office hours or let constituents and others in because they were not permitted to enter the building.
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“Trying to draw false equivalence is pretty thin cover when one party has been cheering on Trump’s sedition right up until the moment it turned violent,” says Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee). “As much as those covering for domestic terrorism today would like to re-write history, the 2011 Wisconsin protests were never violent, though Scott Walker admitted he had thought about planting troublemakers to make them that way.”
Still, Steineke argued the comparison was accurate: “Capitol buildings in both cases were taken over by protestors. I was there at the Wisconsin Capitol. We were trying to conduct our business and were prevented by protestors storming the Capitol. So yes, it’s similar.”
Former Rep. Michelle Litjens, now married to Speaker Robin Vos, added her own recollections of Act 10 from her time in the Assembly. “The DC protestors have gone too far, be strong. In WI folks were sleeping on the floors/hallways, living in the Capitol, bathing in the bathrooms, blocking entrances, screaming and spitting on us in 2011. Stand your ground Congress. It will be over soon #dcprotest”
Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) says he would never want to diminish the tension Republicans may have felt at the sight of tens of thousands of people at the Capitol opposing their actions to curtail workers’ rights during Act 10 protests and, of course, not the seriousness of death threats.
What strikes him as a stark difference — more so than the level of the violence in D.C. — was what sparked the two protests.
“The intent behind these actions would seem to be considerably different,” says Hintz. He points out that former Gov. Scott Walker campaigned on being willing to bargain with workers, saying individuals and families “felt betrayed by a lie … that had an impact on their economic security and their workplace security.”
“Protesting a policy with an outcome that could be good or bad for people is not the same as threatening a coup. We have people [in D.C.] that seem hellbent on an endgame that is overturning our democracy.”
Others, including Sen. Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point) and Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville), likened the D.C. insurrection to Kenosha protests over the police shooting of Jacob Blake last summer. Walker also chimed in with his comments on Black Lives Matter protests, tweeting, “All summer long, we spoke out against the riots and violence across America. It was wrong then and it is wrong today.”
That drew strong rebukes from Democratic legislators.
“I don’t want to hear another person EVER try to compare peaceful protests that occur in cities across this country ever again,” tweeted Rep. LaKeshia Myers (D-Milwaukee). “Because this gross display of anarchy is NOT a protest.”
Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee) concurred, tweeting. “BLM protestors fighting for the right to live are met with Natl Guard & every local Police Dept’s Tanks, tear gas & rubber bullets. Trump supporters (not protestors) attempting to kill democracy allowed to take the U.S. Capitol Building & chill on the Senate Floor.”
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