My bizarre arrest at the Capitol

Story Date: 
Aug 26, 2013
By Nora Cusack, lifetime ACLU member

Last Thursday, August 22, Nora Cusack was arrested inside the Capitol for observing a protest. Prior to her arrest, Isthmus and NBC 15 published stories about her, and Nora published a letter to the editor in the Wisconsin State Journal, questioning the tactics used by Capitol Police and the legality of the arrests occurring inside the Capitol. Since Nora's arrest, The Progressive and Isthmus have published additional pieces.

To learn more about the ACLU of Wisconsin's ongoing federal lawsuit over free speech at the Capitol, click here.



I’ve sporadically observed the Solidarity Sing Along at the Capitol since July 24, when Capitol Police began arresting people who sing in the rotunda on weekdays from noon to 1 p.m. 

On August 6, I was standing on the first floor balcony of the Capitol, holding an 8 ½ by 11 sheet of paper. The paper said, “May I listen to the singing? Without getting arrested?”

I was approached by Capitol Police and warned that I would be arrested if I did not leave immediately. My husband was also warned. We discussed the warnings at length with the officer and were not arrested. That day Isthmus published a story about Rep. Sondy Pope also being warned of arrest.

On the afternoon of August 7, Stephanie Marquis, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Administration, issued a statement saying, “Observers will not receive citations.”

On August 8 I went to the Capitol and stood at the rail of the first floor balcony, holding an 8 ½ by 11 sheet of paper. One side said, “I am observing only.” The other side said, “Observers will not receive citations, DOA, August 7, 2013.”

On August 8, Isthmus published a story about my sign. It said, correctly, that Capitol Police had not approached me, or warned me in any way, since state officials had said the previous day that observers would not receive citations.

Between August 8 and 22, I sporadically observed the Solidarity Sing Along, holding the same sign. During that time, I was never approached or warned by police, nor did I observe anyone else on the first floor balcony being approached by police.

Last Thursday, August 22, I stood at the first floor balcony railing shortly before noon. I held the sheet of paper that said, “I am observing only” and “Observers will not receive citations, DOA August 7, 2013.” I believe I was the only person on the balcony holding a piece of paper or sign.

I was very careful to only observe. I did not participate in the Sing Along in any way. I did not sing, nor clap, nor tap my foot, nor hum. I did not sway in time to the music. I simply observed.

At around 12:15 p.m., Capitol Police declared the Sing Along “an unlawful event” via a loudspeaker. I observed no arrests between 12 and 12:30 p.m.

Then, at 12:30 p.m., a group of Capitol Police entered the first floor balcony. They spoke to one person who was standing at the railing. Then, ignoring many other people who had been singing and clapping, they made a beeline for me.

An officer told me I had been “identified as a participant in an unlawful assembly.”

“I am not participating,” I said. “I am just observing.”

The police said that by holding the sign, I was participating. We each reiterated our positions, calmly, a few more times. Then the officer said, “You are under arrest.” (View photos of Nora's arrest here.)

Several officers took me to the cafeteria in the basement. (Watch the video here.)

In the cafeteria, the police filled out my paperwork and told me I would be charged with something other than “unlawful assembly,” which was listed on my citation. They decided they would write, “Unlawful Assembly. Brings signs supported by standards or sticks” to describe my violation. They said this was a violation of a separate section of the administrative code.

I said my sign was not on a standard or stick. They essentially told me I was the standard.

After escorting me to the cafeteria door, I asked if I could observe the Sing Along without holding a sign. They said I would be arrested again if I “participated in the unlawful event.”

“I won’t participate,” I said. “I just want to observe.”

“I think you know what participating is,” they said, and opened the door and let me go.

I was the only person arrested inside the Capitol on August 22. My arraignment in Dane County Court is set for September 6.