MADISON, Wis. — The occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol by protesters fighting efforts to strip public workers of union bargaining rights carried on Sunday after police decided not to forcibly remove demonstrators and end a nearly two-week-long sit-in.
The state agency that oversees the Capitol had asked the throngs of demonstrators who have camped out inside the building since Feb. 15 to leave by 4 p.m., saying the building was in dire need of a cleaning.
But in the hours before the deadline came and after it passed, it was clear most protesters did not intend to leave voluntarily and police had no immediate intention of forcing them to go.
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Late Sunday night, Wisconsin Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs said no demonstrators would be arrested as long as they continue to obey the law.Story: Walker shows no sign of conceding in Wisconsin battle
"People here have acted lawfully and responsibly," Tubbs said. "There's no reason to consider arrests."
Tubbs said demonstrators who have occupied all three floors of the Capitol will have to relocate to the ground floor. He added that anyone who leaves the building will not be allowed back in until Monday morning, although police will allow union officials to bring food into the building for the protesters during the night.
A cheer went up from the protesters around 7:30 p.m. after one of their coordinators, Erika Wolf, took a microphone and announced: "There's really awesomely good news — that we're going to be able to stay here tonight."
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Many said they would stay and again sleep inside the Capitol.
"It was a victory for peace. It was a victory for democracy," said Kara Randall, 46, a massage therapist from Middleton who had already spent five nights at the Capitol.
Demonstrators began camping out inside the normally immaculate Capitol two weeks ago in an effort to fight legislation proposed by Wisconsin's new Republican governor, Scott Walker, that would strip most of the state's public employees of the right to collectively bargain.Story: Indiana shows what's at stake in Wis. union push
Labor leaders and Democratic lawmakers say the bill is intended to undermine the unions and weaken a key base of Democratic Party voters.
Walker argues the Republican-backed measure would help close a projected $3.6 billion deficit in the 2011-13 budget, and that freeing local governments from having to collectively bargain with public employee unions would give them the flexibility needed to deal with forthcoming budget cuts.
Walker's spokesman declined late Sunday to comment on the police decision to keep the Capitol open to the demonstrators. In an interview earlier in the day on NBC's "Meet the Press," Walker said the lengthy protests haven't eroded his resolve to push forward with his legislative agenda.
"Year after year, governors and legislators before us have kicked the can down the road," Walker said. "We can't do that. We're broke. It's about time someone stood up and told the truth in our state and said here's our problem, here's the solution and let's do this."
Walker's proposal stalled in the state Senate when its 14 Democratic lawmakers fled the state for Illinois, leaving the legislative body one vote short of a quorum. The Democratic senators have vowed to stay away from Wisconsin for as long as it takes.
One of the Democrats, Sen. Lena Taylor, tweeted her support to the protesters who remained: "Thank you for exercising your 1st amend right - I'm glad my actions give you opportunity to stand/sit/express yourself!"
After closing the building for the cleaning, authorities had planned to reopen the Capitol on Monday at 8 a.m. But David Vines, a 19-year-old freshman at the nearby University of Wisconsin-Madison, worried that any lost momentum would be difficult to recapture.
"It's so difficult to organize something like this. Any break to the momentum could be a cut to morale," Vines said.
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