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Wisconsin State Journal, John Hart, Associated Press
Demonstrators rush into the Wisconsin State Capitol Building after entering the building Wednesday evening, March 9, 2011. The Wisconsin Senate voted Wednesday night to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from public workers, approving an explosive proposal that had rocked the state and unions nationwide after Republicans discovered a way to bypass the chamber's missing Democrats.

MADISON, Wis. — Thousands of protesters rushed into the Wisconsin state Capitol on Wednesday evening moments after Senate Republicans passed a plan to strip most public workers of their collective bargaining rights, breaking windows and door locks and forcing police to retreat from the building's entrances.

The Capitol has been a flashpoint for demonstrations since the measure was introduced about three weeks ago. Senate Democrats fled the state to block a vote in that chamber, and tens of thousands of people jammed the building, setting up a makeshift village and plastering the marble walls with signs. Hundreds slept overnight on the floor for about two weeks.

Police imposed tighter access restrictions last week and convinced the last handful of overnighters to leave peacefully on March 3. The protests had been restricted to the Capitol's ground floor and lawns until Wednesday evening, when Senate Republicans used a procedural maneuver to pass the bill without the minority Democrats.

As word that the vote was coming spread, hundreds of protesters moved into the building before it's official 6 p.m. closing time and jammed the corridors in front of the Senate chamber, chanting shame.

Moments after the vote, protesters locked outside began pounding on the Capitol's now-locked doors, demanding to be let in. Police were able for a time to hold their positions, but somehow more and more people found a way in. State Department of Administration spokesman Tim Donovan said people broke windows and door locks. He said he didn't have any further details.

In a span of perhaps an hour and half, thousands of protesters had found their way in. At one point police at one of the Capitol's main entrances retreated from their positions and just let them pour inside.

"Law enforcement officers have moved to other positions," Donovan acknowledged after those officers retreated. "They're holding different ground."

Within minutes the protesters had all but seized the building again, turning the place into a free-for-all. They banged drums, blew whistles and shouted their mantra, "This is what democracy looks like!" and "Who's house? Our house!" There were no reports of violence.

So many people jammed the second-floor skywalks linking the building's wings that Capitol Police got back on the loudspeaker and warned them the bridges could collapse. No one moved.

Asked about the police's plan, Donovan said officers just hoped to make sure no one got hurt. He didn't know how many police were still on the scene but said more were on their way.