For a second straight Saturday, tens of thousands of protesters filled the streets around the state Capitol — braving temperatures in the mid-teens — for the largest day yet in their continuing struggle to stop Gov. Scott Walker's plan to essentially end collective bargaining rights for most public employees.
Madison police spokesman Joel DeSpain said early Saturday afternoon that the number of protesters — nearly all of whom opposed Walker's plan — was in excess of 70,000, the estimated number of protesters in attendance last Saturday.
"We've had no problems," DeSpain said, adding that officers were again committed to keeping the Square "safe for democracy."
There were lines of more than 500 people waiting to get into the Capitol late Saturday afternoon as officers only let people in as others left. At 6 p.m., Capitol police stopped allowing anyone in, but thousands remained inside for what apparently was one of the last protest sleepovers in the Capitol. Police are scheduled to begin clearing the building Sunday afternoon and the Capitol will be closed Sunday night. Protest organizers indicated that some are planning to peacefully resist removal, forcing police to carry them out of the building. They said others are planning to take up residence on the lawn outside to continue their vigil.
In addition to the protest here Saturday, unions called on people across the country to rally at their statehouses to show support for Wisconsin workers and opposition to efforts to take away bargaining rights here and in other states.
In Madison, protesters got a boost of star power from actor Bradley Whitford, a city native and East High School graduate, and folk singer Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame.
Whitford accused Walker of trying to pay back his "billionaire political sugar daddies" and of using the state budget as a "Trojan horse" to destroy workers rights, saying, "He needs to know this will not stand."
As protesters braved temperatures in the mid-teens, Whitford said, "This guy needs to understand Wisconsin is a stubborn constituency — we fish through ice."
Yarrow led off with an adapted version of "If I Had a Hammer" — the refrain included "kill the bill" and "say no to Walker."
"You're standing up for what America essentially is — a place where everyone has equal opportunity," Yarrow told the protesters, saying, "If you hang in there, you will kill the bill."
"Do not stop," he said. "The eyes of the world are upon you my friends. You are there in New York today. You are in San Francisco."
Yarrow followed 13-year-old Sam Frederick of Wauwatosa, who wrote an anti-Walker protest song for the occasion and led the crowd in singing it. In between, organizers shoveled snow off the outdoor stage.
The "not official UW Marching Band" — tuba and trumpet blaring — played standards like "If You Want to Be a Badger" and the chicken song — "for the chicken that won't negotiate with us." It felt like a football rally with signs and snow.
U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, released a statement saying, "Our democracy demands that government heed the voice of the people. Today in Madison, in freezing temperatures and under snowy skies, tens of thousands of Wisconsinites are marching in protest of legislation that will deny workers' rights and undermine education, health care, and public safety in our state."
As the afternoon wore on, the driveways and stairs around the Capitol turned icy, prompting organizers to call for salt for the protesters' safety.
Drumbeat of opposition
Protesters, many of whom have taken up residence in the Capitol around the clock, continued to sound the drumbeat of opposition in the rotunda, accompanied by speeches and chants.
Between 300 and 400 state corrections officers marched to the Capitol and into the Rotunda on Saturday morning to show their opposition to Walker's plan.
Members of Madison's MadTown Liberty Players street theater group donned huge puppet heads of the Koch brothers and what ended up being a hybrid of Walker and Ronald Reagan. "We're here to just celebrate with Scott Walker for helping the billionaires with his tax breaks ... and tell all these greedy workers to get back to work," actor Laurie Rossbach said in her Koch brother persona. Ted McManus, as Walker, chimed in, "I'm here to sell power plants off (to supporters) for a nickel."
Those arriving at the Capitol early Saturday were cordially greeted by some of the hundreds of law enforcement officers from across the state brought in to help with the protests, while a group of women musicians performed "This Land Is Your Land."
Mike Martin, 55, of Madison, who teaches art at Madison Area Technical College, has been out protesting every day. On Saturday afternoon, he stood along the Square with a puppet-like rendering of Walker dangling on strings from a Koch Industries sign.
"I want a governor who's not a shill to corporate interests," Martin said.
Martin said Walker's budget repair bill is "pretending to be about the budget and it's really about union busting," adding that unions have already agreed to financial concessions.
"We're not asking for much," he said, referring to bargaining rights.
Zak Wosewick, 18, a Milwaukee photography student, said he arrived Friday and planned to leave Sunday afternoon. The crowd inside broke into "We Shall Overcome" as he spoke.
"It's been an amazing experience," Wosewick said. "It's beautiful to see all the people coming together for a common cause."
But Wosewick said he's really not sure that it will change any minds or have any effect.
— State Journal reporters Ron Seely and Dean Mosiman contributed to this article.