MADISON, Wis. — Faced with several hundred drum-beating, dancing and chanting demonstrators who refused to leave the Wisconsin state Capitol after the doors were closed at 4 p.m. Sunday, police decided to let the crowd spend the night and continue the protest against Gov. Scott Walker's budget-repair bill.
"The people who are in the building will be allowed to stay," Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs said Sunday night. "There will be no arrests unless people violate the law."
It was unclear how long the protesters might be able to maintain their nightly vigil. The policy will be reviewed, Tubbs said.
The state's Department of Administration had sought to bring a sense of business-as-usual to the Capitol by establishing regular hours.
Officials said they were trying to clean the building after nearly two weeks of continuous protests.
Tubbs announced the decision to let the protesters stay after he saw how they moved aside while work crews went about cleaning the Capitol, including mopping and polishing floors.
"People are very cooperative," Tubbs said. "I appreciate that."
It was yet another surreal moment in the continuing saga of political chaos at the Capitol.
"We delivered a message to Governor Walker. We'll continue to be here to kill this bill," said Peter Rickman, 28, of Neenah, during a news conference held shortly before the doors shut.
Protesters said they were prepared to be peacefully arrested to make their point that the Capitol should remain open.
The statehouse occupation began Feb. 15 when hundreds of people lined up to testify to the Joint Finance Committee, opposing the bill's provision that would away most collective bargaining rights from state, local and school employees.
Around 3 a.m. on Feb. 16, the committee stopped taking testimony but Democrats in the Legislature immediately started holding an informal listening session that went around the clock for days.
"No one had planned to stay here," said Alex Hanna, 25, a University of Wisconsin-Madison student. "It emerged organically."
There was an air of expectancy throughout Sunday afternoon as demonstrators gathered inside the rotunda. Some came to snap photos of the numerous signs that hung on the walls of the building.
Among the signs: "Please remember this is a peaceful protest."
"Using a recession created on Wall Street to try to bust unions on Main Street."
"As Joan Rivers would say, 'can we tawk?'" a reference to union demands that Walker negotiate with them.
At a few minutes past 4 p.m., an announcement came over the sound system: "The Capitol is now closed."
Scores of demonstrators left the building, while a few hundred made their way to the first floor. They vowed to hold their ground inside the building that has emerged as the focal point of pro-labor demonstrations.
Dena Ohlinger, 22, a University of Wisconsin-Madison student, said for the last week, she had gone to classes and worked during the day and used a yoga mat and blanket while sleeping atop the cold marble floors of the Capitol at night.
"Everyone has been incredible here," she said. "Regular social barriers have been broken down."
Blanca Martin, 29, of Stevens Point, said the protests accomplished many things even as the budget-repair bill makes its way through the Legislature. All 14 Democratic state senators fled to Illinois to block final passage of the bill.
"We've had unity of purpose, unity of spirit," Martin said. "Everyone who has been here has been transformed for life."
During the protest, demonstrators organized cleanup details, set up a system of marshals and brought in food.
"There has never been a cleaner group of protesters or a more public health-conscious group of protesters," said Matt Kearny, 28, a research assistant at UW-Madison.
Shortly before 8 p.m., a worker on a waxing machine polished the main floor of the rotunda and dozens of demonstrators chanted: "Thank you. Thank you."