Nearly 70,000 protesters gathered in Madison, Wis., on Saturday in a peaceful face-off between pro-labor demonstrators and supporters of Republican efforts to scrap the union rights of state workers. Half a world away, Middle East nations were rocked by continued violence, bloodshed and death as citizens thirsting for reform were brutally attacked by government forces.
The stark contrast was not lost on protesters in Wisconsin, who chanted: "This is what democracy looks like!"
"We've seen and shown the world that in Madison, Wis., we can
bring people together who disagree strongly on a bill in a peaceful way," Madison police spokesman Joel DeSpain said.
The state Capitol was the epicenter of political chaos for a fifth day as nearly 70,000 people from both sides of the issue met face-to-face for the first time, and GOP leaders insisted again Saturday there was no room for compromise.
A few dozen police officers stood between supporters of Republican Gov. Scott Walker on the muddy east lawn of the Capitol and the much larger group of pro-labor demonstrators who surrounded them. The protest was peaceful as both sides exchanged chants of "Pass the bill! Pass the bill!" and "Kill the bill! Kill the bill!"
"Go home!" union supporters yelled at Scott Lemke, a 46-year-old machine parts salesman from Cedarburg who wore a hard hat and carried a sign that read "If you don't like it, quit" on one side, and "If you don't like that, try you're fired" on the other.
The Wisconsin governor, elected in November's GOP wave that also gave control of the state Assembly and Senate to Republicans, set off the protests earlier this week by pushing ahead with a measure that would require government workers to contribute more to their healthcare and pension costs and largely eliminate their collective bargaining rights.
He says the concessions are needed to deal with the state's projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall and to avoid layoffs of government workers.
"We did have an election and Scott Walker won," said Deborah Arndt, 53, of Sheboygan Falls. "I think our governor will stand strong. I have faith in him."
At a rally organized by Tea Party Patriots, the movement's largest umbrella group, and Americans for Prosperity, supporters of Walker carried signs with a fresh set of messages: "Your Gravy Train Is Over . . . Welcome to the Recession" and "Sorry, we're late Scott. We work for a living."
"We pay the bills!" tea party favorite Herman Cain yelled to cheers from the pro-Walker crowd. "This is why you elected Scott Walker. and he's doing his job. . . . Wisconsin is broke. My question for the other side is, `What part of broke don't you understand?'"
Nearby, nearly two dozen cabs blocked a major intersection near the Capitol. The driver of the lead cab leaned out of the window and played a trumpet, while others attempted to honk their car horns in sync with a chant from pro-labor protesters: "This is what democracy looks like."
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald reaffirmed Saturday that Republicans have not been swayed by the pro-labor protesters who since Tuesday have filled the Capitol with chanting, drumbeats and anti-Walker slogans.
"The bill is not negotiable," Fitzgerald said inside a heavily guarded Senate parlor at the Capitol. "The bill will pass as is."
Fitzgerald said Republicans have the votes needed to pass the so-called "budget repair" bill just as soon as 14 Senate Democrats who fled the state on Thursday and remain in hiding return to the Statehouse. Without them, there isn't the required quorum to vote on legislation.
The missing Democrats have threatened to stay away for weeks and remain more resolved than ever to stay away "as long as it takes" until Walker agrees to negotiate, Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach said Saturday.
"I don't think he's really thought it through, to be honest," Erpenbach said.
Democrats offered again Saturday to agree to the parts of Walker's proposal that would double workers' health insurance contributions and require them to contribute 5.8 percent of their salary to their pensions, so long as workers retained their rights to negotiate with the state as a union.
Fitzgerald said he was unimpressed given that the offer was something the GOP has rejected for months. The restrictions on collective bargaining rights are needed so local governments and the state will have the flexibility needed to balance budgets after cuts Walker plans to announce next month, he said.
Walker, who was spending time with his family Saturday and wasn't expected to make an appearance at the tea party-organized rally, also rejected the Democrats offer. His spokesman, Cullen Werwie, said the fastest way to end the stalemate was for Democrats to return and "do their jobs."
Sen. Tim Cullen, a Democrat from Janesville, refused to say where he was Saturday but said he didn't expect the Senate to meet again until Tuesday. Cullen said he was watching Saturday's rallies on television with some friends.
"I'm hoping to see no violence, that's what I'm hoping most to see," Cullen said. "This has been a very peaceful, respectful thing all week given the size of the crowds."
Madison police estimated 60,000 or more people were outside the Capitol with up to 8,000 more inside. Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney had planned to add 60 deputies to the 100 who patrolled during the week.
CHAOS IN THE MIDEAST
Although the crowd in Madison was noisy, the gathering in America's heartland was without violence – unlike the day's events across the Middle East.
Security forces in Libya and Yemen fired on pro-democracy demonstrators Saturday as the two hard-line regimes struck back against the wave of protests that has already toppled autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia. At least 15 died when police shot into crowds of mourners in Libya's second-largest city, a hospital official said.
Even as Bahrain's king bowed to international pressure and withdrew tanks to allow demonstrators to retake a symbolic square in the capital, Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh made clear they plan to stamp out opposition and not be dragged down by the reform movements that have grown in nations from Algeria to Djibouti to Jordan.
Libyans returned to the street for a fifth straight day of protests against Gadhafi, the most serious uprising in his 42-year reign, despite estimates by human rights groups of 84 deaths in the North African country — with 35 on Friday alone.
Saturday's deaths, which would push the overall toll to 99, occurred when snipers fired on thousands of mourners in Benghazi, a focal point of unrest, as they attended the funerals of other protesters, a hospital official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
"Many of the dead and the injured are relatives of doctors here," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "They are crying and I keep telling them to please stand up and help us."
Earlier, special forces had attacked hundreds of demonstrators, including lawyers and judges, who were camped out in front of a courthouse in Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city.
Authorities also cut off the Internet across Libya, further isolating the country. Just after 2 a.m. local time in Libya, the U.S.-based Arbor Networks security company detected a total cessation of online traffic. Protesters confirmed they could not get online.
Reports could not be independently confirmed. Information is tightly controlled in Libya, where journalists cannot work freely, and activists this week have posted videos on the Internet that have been an important source of images of the revolt. Other information about the protests has come from opposition activists in exile.
A female protester in Tripoli, the capital city to the west, said it was much harder to demonstrate there. Police were out in force and Gadhafi was greeted rapturously when he drove through town in a motorcade on Thursday.
Throughout the Middle East, protesters for weeks have been crying out against a similar litany of injustices: repressive governments, corrupt officials and pathetic wages among them. Government responses seem to be hardening. While there was violence during the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, the government retaliation in Yemen and Libya in particular appeared to be more sustained.
In Yemen's capital of Sanaa, riot police opened fire on thousands of protesters, killing one anti-government demonstrator and injuring five others on a 10th day of revolt against Saleh, a key U.S. ally in fighting al-Qaida.
As on other days earlier this week, protesters marching from Sanaa's university were met by police and government supporters with clubs and knives who engaged in a stone-throwing battle with the demonstrators. At one point, police fired in the air to disperse the march.
A medical official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said one man was shot in the neck and killed, raising the total death toll from Yemen protests to seven.
In a meeting with civic leaders, Saleh said Yemenis have the right to express themselves peacefully and the perpetrators of the unrest were trying to seize power by fomenting instability.
"The homeland is facing a foreign plot that threatens its future," Saleh said, without elaborating.
Saleh, who has been in power for three decades, has tried to blunt discontent by promising not to seek re-election when his term ends in 2013.
But he is facing a restless population, with threats from al-Qaida militants who want to oust him, a southern secessionist movement and a sporadic armed rebellion in the north. To try to quell new outbursts of dissent, Saleh also has reached out to tribal chiefs, who are a major base of support for him. So far, however, that has not changed the response in the streets.
In the tiny island nation of Bahrain, thousands of joyful protesters streamed back into the capital's central Pearl Square after the armed forces withdrew from the streets following two straight days of a bloody crackdown.
The royal family, which was quick to use force earlier this week against demonstrators in the landmark square that has been the heart of the anti-government demonstrations, appeared to back away from further confrontation following international pressure.
President Barack Obama discussed the situation with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, asking him to hold those responsible for the violence accountable. He said in a statement that Bahrain must respect the "universal rights" of its people and embrace "meaningful reform."
In a telephone call to the crown prince, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he welcomed the government's military withdrawal and strongly supported efforts to initiate a dialogue.
The demonstrators have emulated protesters in Tunisia and Egypt by attempting to bring political change to the government in Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet — the centerpiece of Washington's efforts to confront Iranian military influence in the region.
Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, deputy supreme commander of the armed forces, appealed for calm and political dialogue in a brief address on state TV.
As night fell, though, defiant protesters in Pearl Square erected barriers, wired a sound system, set up a makeshift medical tent and deployed lookouts to warn of approaching security forces.
Protesters took over the square earlier in the week, setting up a camp with tents and placards, but they were driven out by riot police in a deadly assault Thursday that killed five people and injured more than 200. The government then clamped down on Manama by sending the tanks and other armored vehicles into the streets around the square, putting up barbed wire and establishing checkpoints to deter gatherings.
On Friday, army units shot at marchers streaming toward the square. More than 50 people were injured. Some of the protesters were wary of Bahrain's leaders, despite the military withdrawal.
"Of course we don't trust them," said Ahmed al-Shaik, a 23-year-old civil servant. "They will probably attack more and more, but we have no fear now."
The cries against the king and his inner circle reflected a sharp escalation of the political uprising, which began with calls to weaken the Sunni monarchy's power and address claims of discrimination against the Shiite majority.
Algerian police, meanwhile, thwarted a rally by thousands of pro-democracy supporters, breaking up the crowd into isolated groups to keep them from marching.
Police brandishing clubs, but no firearms, weaved their way through the crowd in central Algiers, banging their shields, tackling some protesters and keeping traffic flowing through the planned march route.
A demonstrating lawmaker was hospitalized after suffering a head wound when he fell after police kicked and hit him, colleagues said.
The gathering, organized by the Coordination for Democratic Change in Algeria, comes a week after a similar protest, which organizers said brought an estimated 10,000 people and up to 26,000 riot police onto the streets of Algiers. Algeria has also been hit by numerous strikes over the past month.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has promised to lift the state of emergency, which has been in place since early 1992 to combat a budding insurgency by Islamist extremists. The insurgency, which continues sporadically, has killed an estimated 200,000 people.
Bouteflika has warned, however, that a long-standing ban on protests in Algiers would remain in place, even once the state of emergency is lifted.
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