Hundreds of stay-at-home protesters converge on Wisconsin Capitol

Virtual counter-protests crop up amid political divide over shutdown

Hundreds of people gather at Wisconsin's state Capitol Friday, April 24, to protest Gov. Tony Evers' stay-at-home order, violating warnings from public health officials to socially distance. (Shawn Johnson / WPR)

Hundreds of protesters gathered at the Wisconsin Capitol Building on Friday afternoon to protest the state's stay-at-home order, defying health officials' guidance and highlighting a growing political rift over how and when states should reopen businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.

Protesters held aloft signs that read, "Tony the Tyrant," referencing Gov. Tony Evers, and "Death is preferable to communism."

A Madison Police Department spokesperson said city officers were monitoring the gathering, which violates Wisconsin's "Safer at Home" order, but official jurisdiction of the gathering falls to Wisconsin State Capitol Police. Capitol police did not immediately respond to requests for comment about enforcement or crowd size.

Wisconsin’s current stay-at-home order bars "public and private gatherings of any number of people that are not part of a single household."

Attendees like Mickey Bitsko said the Evers administration's stay-at-home order, which has been in place since March 25, has gone too far.


"This is an illegal assembly," Bitsko said. "Evers says we're illegals. He says people everywhere are nonessential. This one that one. He's picking winners and losers. Who does that sound like? Chairman Mao. Joseph Stalin. Lenin. Trotsky. All the rest of them. They pick the winners and losers. Don't be on the losing side of this one."

Russ Lachman, 69, of La Crosse, said the state's order should vary more across Wisconsin, because rural communities don't have as many cases of the virus.

"You've got two major areas in Wisconsin that are bad: Milwaukee, probably Madison, but the rest, especially the western part of the state, northern part of the state, there's nothing," Lachman said. "As far as I'm concerned, Evers should be recalled."

Similar, smaller protests were staged in Brookfield and Mosinee last weekend.

Psychiatrist Angela Davis held a counter-protest sign at a rally against Wisconsin's stay-at-home order in Madison on April 24. (Shamane Mills / WPR)

Alex Leykin, 52, of Mequon, said he thought the state's initial response to the pandemic was "excellent," but believes now it's time for things to change.

"We now know what we're facing," he said. "It's time to let the citizens decide for themselves how and who to protect."


Similar protests have been springing up across the country .

Before the event began, the number of attendees expected was unclear, as the Facebook event organizing the protest was deleted from the social media site, as were other similar events across the country .

According to a photo of the deleted Facebook event page taken earlier this week, roughly 16,000 people indicated they were interested in or planning to attend the protest.

A Facebook spokesperson said the Friday protest was removed from the site because "events that defy government's guidance on social distancing aren’t allowed on Facebook."

Restaurants around the Capitol square announced Friday morning they would be closed for normal lunchtime service in response to the expected influx of people.

Governor: First Amendment Is 'Sacred'

Gov. Tony Evers said Thursday he supports protesters’ right to gather and express their frustration with the stay-at-home order.

"Using the First Amendment to express yourself, to voice your opinion, is quite sacred," Evers said on a call with reporters.

However, the governor urged protesters to follow social distancing guidelines.


"We’re making the assumption that these are all good Wisconsinites that are establishing their right under the First Amendment to express their views, and we also believe they will make sure they’re physically distanced from each other," he said.

Evers said he doesn’t expect Capitol Police, who denied a permit for the event because it violates the stay-at-home order, to be out using a "yardstick" to gauge whether people are socially distancing.

Counter-Protesters Push Back On Event

Some Wisconsinites are expressing their support for the stay-at-home order with virtual counter-protests Friday.

One event had nearly 7,000 RSVPs from people who say they're either interested or planning to participate as of mid-morning Friday.

Another scheduled for the weekend had more than 2,000 RSVPs.

In a press release, Marybeth Glenn, one of weekend event's organizers, said "no one is enjoying the limitations put in place," but believes they're necessary to preserving public health.

"We empathize with the financial and emotional struggles so many are experiencing due to the Safer at Home measures, and that includes members of our group," Glenn said. "However, even if the restrictions are lifted, citizens do not feel safe and we are listening to the epidemiologists and healthcare professionals."

SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin also organized the placement of 1,300 candles on the Capitol steps Thursday night in recognition of every person in Wisconsin who has been hospitalized with COVID-19. According to the state health department , 1,318 had been hospitalized as of Thursday afternoon.


On Wednesday, African American Council of Churches president Rev. Dr. Marcus Allen called the protests "sad" and "sickening" on a call with reporters.

"What we have in place already has lessened the amount of people that would die," Allen said. "Why would we interrupt that?"

Mariah Clark, an emergency room nurse at University Hospital in Madison, also spoke on the call. She said the nationwide protests of stay-at-home orders "show no respect for those of us who are trying to keep Americans safe."

"All of us are risking our lives during this crisis," she said.

Kathy Hintz, who works on the cleaning staff at a hospital in Appleton, said in an interview with Wisconsin Watch this week that she was "in shock" after learning about the protests.

"If they had to go through what we go through, they would have a different perspective," she said of the protesters.

According to a Marquette University Law School poll released earlier this month , 86% of Wisconsin voters supported the state’s closure of schools and businesses. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll this week found only 12% of Americans think states' shutdown measures go too far. Twenty-six percent believe the limits don’t go far enough.

Editor’s note: This story will continue to be updated. Wisconsin Public Radio's Shawn Johnson, Shamane Mills and Laurel White and Wisconsin Watch’s Bram Sable-Smith contributed reporting to this story.


Wisconsin Public Radio can be heard in the Twin Ports at 91.3 FM or online at .

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