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Inside Capitol, Wisconsin protesters create a city

MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) - Not all the people protesting against a bill in Wisconsin that would strip state workers of some of their collective bargaining rights go home when the day ends.

For more than a week now, several hundred protesters have spent the night sleeping inside the Capitol building, a vigil that has turned the rotunda into an indoor campground.

Like the people thousands of miles away in Egypt who set up the tent city in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and vowed not to leave until their demands were met, the protesters participating in the state capitol sleep-in here have quickly set up a little organized society -- complete with its own simple rules.

A sign declares on the second floor of the Capitol, where protesters have asked the protesters to sleep, declares: “Our principles: 1. The Capitol is our house! Treat it as such and clean up! 2. Non-violence: stay away from debates! Don’t hurt others! 3. No drugs or alcohol. 4. Keep noise down past 1 am. 5. Have fun.”

Hundreds of police officers from all over the state have been deployed as a precaution and dozens stay with the protesters each night.

But the protesters have shown remarkable restraint and respect, not only to the armed police that surround them but to the 100-year-old granite building itself. Reports that they were defacing the capitol with graffiti and engaging in other forms of vandalism have been flatly denied by the authorities.

There’s a help yourself commissary of sorts in a hallway near the office of Terese Berceau, a Democratic representative from Madison, with bottled water, bags of sandwich bread and bagels, jars of peanut butter and all kinds of other non-perishables donated by businesses in Madison.

It is impossible to walk around without bumping into someone handing out bottled water or pizza -- all donated.

There are places to recycle trash, a lost and found where protesters can retrieve items they have misplaced, a medic station for protesters who feel unwell and a charging station for the cell phones and laptops that many are using to keep the wider world up-to-date on the protests through social media.

“What if the world was this,” one sign says, “every day?”

Joe Thoennes, a 25-year-old unemployed man from Duluth, Minnesota, has slept inside the capitol since Saturday, when he arrived here to participate in the protests.

Now sporting a four-day beard, Thoennes says he is still trying to get used to the noise at night inside the rotunda, where every sound bounces and reverberates off the marble columns and stairs and makes sleep difficult.

But otherwise, life is good. He raced to Madison straight from a Friday poetry slam back home with little more than the clothes on his back, a sleeping bag and laptop, Thoennes has picked up a new wardrobe at a thrift store a few blocks away. He says he is determined to stay here until the controversial bill is killed.

“It’s really cool how people are working with each other,” he said.

Georgene Voutila, a 64-year-old semi-retired dental hygienist from Milwaukee, says the sleepovers -- made possible by a decision by Democratic lawmakers to keep the Capitol open by holding hearings through the night, taking testimony from bill opponents -- are just the latest expression of the state’s long tradition of populism and progressive politics.

“Allowing us to have the freedom to be here through this debate, to put things up on the walls and to stay the night -- I just don’t know whether you could do that in any other state Capitol in this country. People should come here just to see it.”

Reporting by James B. Kelleher in Madison, Editing by Greg McCune