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Why we decided to occupy

April 27, 2007 | Page 15

ZACH HEISE of the Campus Antiwar Network (CAN) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison explains how the occupation of Sen. Herb Kohl's office took place.

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IT WAS a cold day, and I found myself instantly wishing that I had read the weather reports that morning when I had gotten dressed. But it warmed my heart to see the hundreds of protesters spread out in front of me as I arrived. I saw my fellow CAN members on the stoop with the boom boxes and the megaphones and I didn't care how cold it was.

I saw the miniature sea of faces looking back at us and it was the best feeling ever, better even than seeing the sea of thousands in Washington, D.C. This was our sea of faces. This was the UW-Madison antiwar effort.

We reached Sen. Herb Kohl's office and jammed into those three or four rooms like you would not believe. Chris read off the list of our demands to the cheers, chants and stomping of feet of the hundreds of people--standing room only--in the office.

Via his staff, Kohl sent a stale and generic message to us, reiterating his "antiwar" stance and saying that, although he supported our opposition to the "president's broken foreign policy," he essentially claimed his hands were tied. Our hisses and boos resonated through the building. The staff was starting to look nervous.

Now for our demand: Either we get Kohl to arrange for a public meeting with his constituents here in Madison in a free, public, open forum, or we stay here as long as it takes. The CAN members asked the students how long they could stay, or if they could stay the night.

Even I was tentative about this at first. Could I stay here for the whole night? Would we get the point across to Kohl that we were serious? Would we be arrested if we tried to stay? One of the older members of our group, Professor Steve Burns, had told us earlier that he and other peace coalition members had been trying to get an audience with Kohl for a year. Perhaps now though, our larger numbers would make the difference.

I raised my hand, first slowly, and then as I saw my friends and, more importantly, new students raising their hands to join us--with pride. Of course we were going to stay the night!

So began the sit-in. In the course of the next several hours, it became a power struggle. The guards began to inflict harsher and harsher demands, first telling the core 40-50 of us that all but five would have to leave. After discussion, we decided to have our representatives tell them: Fat chance.

Late in the night, the guards delivered a new ultimatum. We were now permanently confined to the small side room and, worst of all, we were not allowed access to any of our possessions out in the main office. That included our laptops, our water bottles (in this unventilated room) and even most medication, if we wanted it.

We simply would have to show that we could follow these outrageous, ridiculous, cruel and inhumane orders and wait until morning, when relief and hopefully our conference call from Kohl would arrive.

Morning arrived. We looked down from the windows and saw our group below us, with signs of support and food!

A guard again appeared in our open door. "Any new protesters will sign this form, and they will have to show proper ID," he began. "You will not mingle in the office. You mingle in the office, you will be escorted out. This is where your posting area is. If we feel it's capacity, we will stop anyone else from coming in. We'll give you a comment sheet to fill out."

As he turned away, the room exploded in rage (and amused irony at Lawler's last comment).

This was too much. It was now 8:30 in the morning, business hours. We knew what we had to do. We swarmed back out into the main office, shouting "Hell no, we won't go!" after which we sat down on the floor, nonviolent and peaceful as always. Apparently the aides and the guards had snapped though.

The Madison police arrived. We were told that we had 10 minutes to comprehend this: Anyone that stayed after 10 minutes from this point would be given a disorderly conduct ticket (with a $424 fine) and escorted from the building. Anyone who stayed beyond that would be arrested by the police, and taken to the Madison jail.

Some members of the group were all for making a political statement by getting arrested, but many more of us were leery of the large fine and more importantly, our ability to continue getting the word out to campus if we were all in the paddy. As the police closed in around us, we chose to leave and bring our message to campus. Except for one man, who stayed behind to be arrested.

I watched as the group filed out of the main entrance, still singing their antiwar chants. I went down the fire exit. I was appalled. It was true then. The police had even confirmed it for our leaders, and I heard them--Kohl's staff had ordered the police to have us arrested for disorderly conduct if we didn't leave.

Our senator, the man that I'm ashamed to say I voted for several months ago, would rather have his legal constituents arrested than meet with them.

Outside, I held my sign up to the road: "Kohl would rather have us arrested than meet with us." Several people honked, and even more simply looked disbelieving. If so many of us voted for him last year just on the principle that he's supposed to be a Democrat, we were all pretty disgusted.

I haven't been this disillusioned in awhile, not since I almost joined the Marines and believed the administration about the WMDs. Yes, I can admit it. I was angry and betrayed when I found out they were lying, but here was my senator--my Democratic senator--who had gone against us and used his police and his guards on us. "Bullshit!" ran through my mind.

And that was April 18, the most radical day of my life. We, the sit-in group, had been in that office for almost 19 hours, from 2:38 p.m. on April 18 to 9:23 a.m. on April 19. This isn't over yet. We'll be constituents next week too, and we'll spend our time thinking of the best way to do this. We've made our statement to the city and to the media--maybe now people will start to realize what Kohl really cares about.

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