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.
Roughly three hours after a deadline to vacate the building had passed and as police officers continued to look on quietly, protest coordinator Erika Wolf took to a microphone and announced: "There's really awesomely good news – that we're going to be able to stay here tonight."
A cheer went up from the several hundred protesters who had ignored a request from the state agency that oversees the Capitol to leave by 4 p.m. so that the normally immaculate building could get a thorough cleaning.
But many said they would stay and again sleep inside the Capitol, which protesters have filled with chants, catcalls and song since their demonstration began on Feb. 15.
"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 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.
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.
Wisconsin Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs said demonstrators who had occupied all three floors of the Capitol would have to relocate to the ground floor overnight. Anyone who left the building was barred from returning until Monday morning, although police did allow union officials to bring food into the building for the protesters.
No demonstrators would be arrested as long as they continue to obey the law, Tubbs said. By late evening, the air smelled of pizza and lemon-scented disinfectant as demonstrators quietly ate dinner and several janitors worked around them to clean the Capitol's marble floors.
"People here have acted lawfully and responsibly," Tubbs said. "There's no reason to consider arrests."
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."
Sue Knetsch, 53, of Waupaca, said she stayed away from the Capitol throughout the nearly two weeks of protests, but that she brought her 21-year-old son, Taylor, to the Capitol on Sunday as a lesson in democracy.
"I just want him to know you can do something – his generation is walking around passively saying, 'It doesn't matter,'" said Knetsch, who said she had been arrested at age 17 while protesting the Vietnam War. "This is awesome. I'm a little nostalgic."
As the deadline to leave the building arrived at 4 p.m., organizers who commanded a microphone on the ground floor urged people to remain until police physically tapped them on the shoulder and asked them to leave. Some individuals left in groups of 10 or 20, while most remained behind. Hundreds of other protesters watched from one floor above, the informal gathering place for those who expected to be arrested.
After the deadline passed, hundreds of protesters on the Capitol's upper floors picked up their energy level, chanting "peaceful protest," and "Whose house is this? Our house." At one point, the crowd sang the national anthem.
Others decided to leave once it became clear police were not going to force anyone to go. Rusty Johnson, 35, of Arena, said after nearly two-days straight inside the Capitol, he needed to get home to see his two kids and get ready for work on Monday.
"If I had expected us to be able to maintain this occupation, I would have made different arrangements," Johnson said. "This didn't come down like we were expecting."
Associated Press writer Patrick Condon contributed to this report.