The Chilling Statehouse Access Blunder

by Brian Howey

I spent a good part of New Year’s Eve watching some 10,000 people gather peaceably though vigorously at Hinkle Fieldhouse to watch the Butler Bulldogs take on and beat Milwaukee. After that, more than 14,000 people showed up at Mackey Arena to watch the Purdue Boilermakers quiet Illinois. And New year’s night, with great anticipation, more than 17,000 animated, intense people jammed into Assembly Hall to watch the Indiana Hoosiers try to win their first Big Ten game against Ohio State.
But in a building similar in size to these arenas – the Indiana Statehouse – the Daniels administration has made the unconscionable decision to arbitrarily limit the number of people entering to do “the people’s business” to 3,000. This isn’t just Gov. Mitch Daniels’ second acknowledged “oops” in one week. This is a stain on his legacy.
Indiana State Police Supt. Paul Whitesell crouched behind public safety in announcing the unprecedented restrictions. “Public safety is our primary concern as we work to facilitate the most possible accessibility to the state Capitol and the legislative process while ensuring, at the same time, the safest possible environment.”
What a farce.
If there are public safety concerns, then Daniels and Whitesell need to bring in more State Police troopers, EMS and even firefighters. To arbitrarily restrict access to the “people’s house” is either misguided bureaucracy or a blatant political power play.
As State Sen. Mike Delph pointed out on his Facebook page: Article I, Section 31 of the Indiana State Constitution states, “No law shall restrain any of the inhabitants of the State from assembling together in a peaceable manner, to consult for their common good; nor from instructing their representatives; nor from applying to the General Assembly for redress of grievances.”
Last year’s labor rallies at the Statehouse mustered in opposition to the Right to Work legislation were noisy and inconvenient. As at basketball games, people were angry. They were vigorous. And yes, some came in from other places, other states. But the Indiana Constitution makes no distinction on the numbers or the reason for people to gather or where they come from.
The Indiana Law Blog raised many questions: Was there a written news release from the state administration? Does “assemble at the Statehouse” mean “inside” the building? Is this limit “at one time”, or is the count for the entire day? Were there really 8,000 protesters in the Statehouse at one time during last year’s session? Re: “the number was based on an analysis’ of what was safe” — is this analysis available to the public? What is the average count of individuals within the Statehouse, by day or by week, for the past year? Other stories report access to the public will be limited to the east doors. If that means the doors at the top of the steps, doesn’t it eliminate access to the disabled? Does this limit apply to “visitors” to the judicial branch, as well as the executive and legislative branches?
House Minority Leader B. Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, observed of the announcement by State Police Supt. Whitesell, “The people’s Statehouse is no more. This policy is designed specifically to prevent working Hoosiers from coming to the Indiana Statehouse to register their concerns about implementation of a ‘right to work for less’ policy that will give them fewer jobs at lower pay in unsafe workplaces. It now appears the governor will do anything to silence the thousands of Hoosiers who oppose this plan, including abandoning concepts of free speech and assembly that are the founding principles of government.”
Nancy Guyott, president of the Indiana AFL-CIO, said, “Hiding behind the state police and conveniently contrived capacity concerns, those in control of the Statehouse are using this ‘policy’ to shut out the voices of dissent and limit access to government to only those they favor.”
And Senate Minority Leader Vi Simpson, D-Ellettsville, added, “The action of this administration is symbolic of a closed, elitist government which seeks to silence the voices of persons who disagree with them. This is neither about security nor safety … it is about not wanting to hear from working families who have made the effort, at their own expense, to come and speak with their elected representatives about issues that will directly impact them. The administration is, however, maintaining access to special interests – the people who are highly paid to be at the Statehouse. Lobbyists are guaranteed a voice for their clients, but the average Hoosier has no such guarantee.”
In a society where pent up frustration in government is mounting to a point we haven’t seen, perhaps, since 1968, the access to the people’s business is absolutely vital. To deny it – with the whole world watching as a prelude to the NFL Super Bowl – will become an international spectacle, and a chilling one at that.
There’s irony in that basketball teams from Wisconsin, Illinois (where House Democrats and Wisconsin senators found refuge) and Ohio invaded Indiana on New Year’s Eve. Each of those states were the scenes in 2011 of intense labor demonstration and political consequence. Yet, throughout all the political strife, no shots were fired. No buildings were bombed or burned. There were no suicide attacks. Virtually no one was hurt. No one died.
What we saw was the essence of democracy.
Today in Indiana and the United States, we find people losing profound faith in government’s ability to solve the many precarious problems we face. Some of us are even beginning to wonder whether the political and government culture as we know and understand it can deal with our huge problems without a societal, economic or political cataclysm.
Gov. Daniels and Supt. Whitesell unwisely just threw gas on the fire in this, our winter of discontent.