OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Thousands of protesters greeted lawmakers beginning a 30-day special session to address the state’s budget woes, with a rowdy group disrupting a hearing Monday and police later using Tasers in a skirmish as a large crowd refused to leave the Capitol building at the end of the day.
By 7 p.m., a crowd of several hundred that had gathered in the state Capitol building had thinned to about 100 people. State troopers let people leave voluntarily but began physically removing those who refused to go after the building was closed to the public at 5:30 p.m. Troopers picked up several people by their limbs and removed them from the building. The remainder of the protesters left the building on their own accord shortly after 8 p.m., slowly backing out of the building while singing “whose side are you on?”
A total of about 3,000 people protested at the Capitol throughout the day, though the number of protesters on campus at any one time varied, said Washington State Patrol Sgt. J.J. Gundermann. The protesters came from various groups, including Occupy Olympia, unions and social service groups.
Gundermann said that 30 people removed from the Capitol Monday evening received a trespassing citation and will not be allowed back on the Capitol campus for 30 days. Four people were arrested Monday, three at the Capitol Monday evening, and one earlier in the day at a committee hearing, Gundermann said.
The Washington State Patrol had locked the doors to the building Monday evening, preventing more people from entering. Earlier, hundreds of protesters, most associated with the national Occupy movement, had vowed to stay, and many brought sleeping bags to the building’s rotunda. Dozens of troopers were also in the building, standing at entrances.
Dan Coon, a State Patrol spokesman, said troopers used Tasers on three people when demonstrators trying to enter the Capitol building advanced on the officers. He said the troopers were trying to protect themselves from being trampled.
“They weren’t trying to disperse people,” he said.
Gundermann said a fourth person, one of three arrested during the evening protest, was tasered outside on the other side of the building. In that incident, the three were arrested when they tried to enter the Capitol from a different entrance. Coon said a scuffle broke out between troopers and protesters, and one trooper was bitten. Two people were arrested for assault, obstruction and resisting arrest, and one was arrested for obstruction and resisting arrest, Coon said.
The protests defined the opening day of a session that is to focus on budget cuts. Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed reducing funding to areas like education, public safety and health care to deal with a $1.4 billion deficit.
Earlier Monday, more than a dozen people burst into a crowded committee room and began chanting in opposition of deep cuts. They shouted in favor of taxing the wealthy.
Security escorted one of the protesters out while some continued yelling and others banged on doors outside of the room. Lawmakers eventually suspended the hearing, but it resumed about 30 minutes later.
The panel was scheduled to begin considering Gregoire’s proposal for close to $2 billion in cuts, reductions to local governments and fund transfers, leaving $600 million in the bank.
Gregoire wants the Legislature to send a temporary, half-cent sales tax increase to the statewide ballot as early as March, with the levy pinned to “buying back” cuts that could be made to areas like education and public safety.
Democratic leaders in the House and Senate will produce their own plan in the coming weeks. A packed House hearing began that process Monday afternoon, though the meeting was disrupted several times with people inside the hearing chanting several phrases, including, “We will not be silenced.”
Other groups crowded inside the Capitol rotunda, and a small group of protesters in the House gallery unfurled a banner over the chamber and shouted for lawmakers to tax the rich and fund schools. They chanted that the plan to further cut education will hurt families, children and teachers.
“It is immoral. It is illegal,” they shouted. A few lawmakers watched the protesters while others ignored them. Troopers managed to quiet the crowd and escort them out of the chamber.
About 200 protesters, chanting “We are the 99 percent” and carrying signs like “They Cut, We Bleed,” later filled the Senate public galleries after the Senate adjourned for the day.
Mark Arras, acting captain for the Capitol campus for the State Patrol, told protesters Monday evening that the building was closed and asked them to leave.
“We respect your right to free speech and protest. We ask you to do so within the building hours,” Arras said.
The crowded responded: “This is not a protest. It’s an occupation.”
Outside of the building earlier in the day, Albert Postema, of Snohomish, was wearing a rope noose tie to signify what he said was a “collective economic noose around us.”
Postema, a produce and nursery stock farmer, said that he went to his first Occupy protest in New York in September. He said he considers himself a conservative but is concerned about “economic and political corruption.”
“The poor and underprivileged have been taking the brunt,” he said. “How do you make cuts when others have been so greedy?”
Karen Washington, a Spokane home care worker, said she’s worried about how cuts could affect her clients’ ability to pay for medication, as well as their impact on her as a worker. Washington said that while the state needs to raise revenue, the sales tax increase proposed by the governor would hurt low-income workers like herself.
Washington said she hopes lawmakers consider other taxes, including removing tax exemptions for some businesses.
“It’s not an either or situation,” she said. “It’s not sales tax or cuts. It’s not education or health care. They have other options.”
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