«RM75»«FC»COL225.PRB - The Dignity of Missouri's Capitol
The recent conviction of 22 protesters whose 2014 demonstration in the Missouri Senate visitors' gallery chamber forced the Senate to recess is an indication of how different Missouri's Capitol is from the U.S. Capitol I covered in 1972.
For an hour on May 6, 2014, the protesters sang and chanted against the legislature's refusal to expand Medicaid. Those convicted in the Cole County Court of misdemeanor trespass refused Capitol Police orders to leave.
A similar protest in the U.S. Capitol would be nearly impossible. Unlike the Missouri Capitol where anyone can wander into the legislative visitors' galleries, access to similar galleries in the nation's capitol is restricted, requiring tickets.
The differences between our nation's Capitol and Missouri's extend beyond gallery access.
I found a somber and respectful dignity throughout the U.S. Capitol. That is not the case in Missouri's statehouse of today.
In recent years supporters of Medicaid expansion and other issues have marched through the legislative hallways chanting and singing so loudly as to make work in the nearby legislative offices nearly impossible.
Access to the symbolic seat of Missouri government -- the rotunda where the large bronze great seal of Missouri is embedded into the stone floor -- has been blocked by protesters.
In 2015, Ferguson and Medicaid protesters staged a symbolic "die in" lying on the rotunda floor prohibiting access to any visitor who wanted to get close to the great seal or peer up to the Capitol dome.
Like 2014, they disrupted a Senate session, this time on the opening day, until Capitol Police removed them from the galleries.
To a certain extent, state government facilitates this kind of disruptive behavior in the rotunda.
The state constructed for private groups a temporary stage-like platform and provide sound amplifiers that are so loud as to make it difficult to work in offices adjoining the rotunda. More than once I've worried about the noise assault for the Capitol tour guides whose desk is next to the rotunda.
The administration even has a portable, fake wall for a stage-like setting. For years, the wall was placed right in front of the bust of the only Missourian to become U.S. president, Harry Truman.
Eventually Truman's bust was moved to a place where he avoids the disgrace of being walled off, but it's a less prominent position.
The administration even has allowed outside groups to use the first-floor rotunda to set up expansive private displays that remain overnight. For several years, a group affiliated with Scientology was been allowed to leave in the rotunda for two days an extensive multi-media display of the organization's campaign against psychiatry.
While he was Senate president pro tem, Jim Mathewson, voiced concerns at how the atmosphere of the Capitol was changing. He was disturbed by the growing number of notices taped to statehouse walls by legislators themselves as well as by special interest groups advertising free meals and other services, like acupuncture, in the statehouse.
Sometimes, elaborate lunch spreads are provided on the majestic third-floor of the rotunda between the two legislative chambers. I can't recall the U.S. Congress ever turning their rotunda over to a private lobbying group for a meal spread.
I fully understand the First Amendment rights of free speech. After all, the rights we journalists enjoy are incorporated into that amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
But converting the symbolic seat of Missouri government into a low-cost convention hall is not what I think the framers of our Constitution imagined.
The majesty of the Roman-style architecture and the quiet, somber atmosphere I once experienced in both Jefferson City and Washington regularly inspired me and reminded me of the importance of what I am covering.
I've wondered how this more recent carnival atmosphere in the Missouri statehouse affects the attitudes about government of both my own students as well as the thousands of school children who visit the Capitol every year.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]