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Thousands Descend on Michigan Capitol for Protest

LANSING, Mich. -- Demonstrators were massing at the Capitol before dawn this morning as Lansing braced for what was expected to be one of the largest -- if not the largest -- demonstrations in state capital history against right-to-work legislation expected to pass the state House today.

Protesters carried signs with messages such as "Snyder, veto right-to-work." Two large tents were set up on the front Capitol lawn, including one set up by right-to-work proponents who were expected to be greatly outnumbered.

On the third floor of the Capitol, dozens of union members circled the rail of the Capitol rotunda, shouting, "This is our house," as they waited to get into the public gallery.

"I am a kindergarten teacher," said Renee Theisen of Warren, whose school district was closed today due to poor attendance. "We just want our voices heard. This is important to us to belong to a union, and we want to keep it that way."

Brett Brown of Owosso, a member of UAW Local 602, said: "I hope that they hear that we're disappointed with the way this Legislature has handled this issue, especially the governor. I am hoping to effect change."

A huge contingent of police, armed with billy clubs, began surrounding the Capitol and streaming inside before dawn. Shortly before 8 a.m. today, they began allowing the people inside and they scrambled for the few precious spots in the gallery overlooking the House floor.

But neither the public nor the media will be allowed in to those spots until 9:30 a.m. today, a half hour before session is supposed to start.

Police have limited the amount of public in the common areas of the Capitol to 2,200, including 160 in the Senate gallery and 195 in the House gallery.

"We're feeling good today," said Michigan State Police Inspector Gene Adamczyk. "We have an enhanced police presence and we want to be highly visible so people feel safe and secure."

On the front Capitol steps, a tea party sign posted by the group American For Prosperity, advocating "workplace freedom," was posted above the crowd.

Conservative groups had reserved the use of the front steps.

But it was union representatives who stood on the steps this morning, rallying the growing crowd on the Capitol lawn.

"Stop the attacks on the middle class," read signs carried by demonstrators.

All sides have called for peaceful demonstrations. The state House is expected to convene at 10 a.m. today.

-- FOLLOW ON TWITTER: Live tweets from Michigan reporters covering #righttowork

Crowds of people were streaming into the Lansing Center this morning, including a bearded man in a Santa suit carrying a sign declaring the "GOP stole Christmas."

Though hundreds of people went straight to the Michigan Capitol, many came to the Lansing Center, ready to march a few blocks down Michigan Avenue to the Capitol later in the morning.

They were greeted by people like Cal Mott, a retired political science teacher and social studied teacher who now is director of a Michigan Education Association unit that represents school districts in southeastern Oakland County.

"The goal is to get Governor Snyder to veto," the legislation, Mott said. "I don't think that's going to happen, but at least he'll see that a lot if people are saying no."

Mott said if the legislation is approved, fewer people will likely join unions but the unions will have to represent them.

"They don't have to pay into it but they reap the benefits."

Scott Hagerstrom, Michigan director for the tea party group Americans for Prosperity, stood near the top of the front capital steps, surrounded by shouting union activists, holding a "worker freedom" banner in support of the controversial legislaiton.

He said there had been no trouble this morning, unlike last Thursday when there was pushing and shoving between right-to-work opponents and proponents on the Capitoil step.

"It's a pretty big crowd, but I expected probably a lot more," Hagerstrom said as he looked over the crowd on the Capitol lawn.

Annie Patnaude, deputy director for AFP Michigan, stood in a tent on the Capitol lawn with a small number of right-to-work proponents.

"I'll be frank with you, we're not going to be able to match the unions," Patnaude said. "A lot of them get paid days off when they come out and protest.

"I've also heard from some of our activists that they're afraid.

"What you see here is a small group of our really dedicated activists who wanted to come out to be here when we hear the news that the right-to-work legislative package has passed.

"We're really excited and energized and we want to stand in solidarity with the courageous lawmakers."

Copyright 2012 - Detroit Free Press

McClatchy-Tribune News Service