A series of bills moved through the Wisconsin legislature Tuesday aiming to increase penalties for damaging statues and “unlawful” protests.
The Assembly discussed Assembly Bill 776, which would expand definitions for damaging statues or monuments, making it illegal to damage any statue or monument on “publicly owned land or [land that] is maintained by the state or any county or municipality”. This is an expansion of a previous law that protected similar structures on “state-owned” property. The penalty remains harsh under the new definition: a Class I felony, punishable by up to three and a half years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines.
“There is a correct way to seek removal of the displays for some of the objectionable individuals in our nation's history,” Rep. Rick Gundrum (R-Slinger) said during debate on the bill. “One has the ability to hopefully do research so that the group they're leading doesn't pull down a statue out of unexplainable ignorance.”
The bill is likely in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis as well as the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha and the subsequent nationwide protest that followed in 2020. In Madison, protesters toppled two statues, one being that of abolitionist Hans Christian Heg and the second being Lady Forward, a woman symbolizing the Wisconsin state motto of “Forward”. Both statues were repaired and restored to their original places last year.
Protests in Kenosha saw over 100 buildings damaged and over 40 buildings destroyed. The unrest would also bring about the arrest of Kyle Rittenhouse for shooting and killing two people and injuring a third. Rittenhouse was acquitted on all counts late 2021.
“This behavior has to stop,” Rep. Barbara Dittrich (R-Oconomowoc) said in reference to the protests in Kenosha. “People deserve to feel safe in their workplace, in their homes, without physical threat of violence.”
Democrats did not take the floor to speak on the bill, and the bill passed 59-33 with one Democrat, Rep. Steve Doyle (D-Onalaska), voting in favor of the bill. The bill will now head to the State Senate where it is expected to pass. Should the bill pass the Senate, Governor Tony Evers will have the final decision on whether or not to veto the bill.
The State Senate debated a similar bill, Senate Bill 296, which would add a definition of “riot” to public statutes and would make “knowingly participating in a riot that results in substantial damage to property or personal injury” a felony. Those guilty of such charges would have to serve jail time.
Opponents to the bill focused on the lack of a clear distinction between the definitions of riots and protests, viewing it as a dangerous hindrance of the First Amendment.
“Protest is democracy," Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison) said. "This bill being brought forward today by my friends across the aisle is a declaration of war against the First Amendment."
The bill passed the Senate along party lines, 59-34, and now heads to Gov. Evers, who can sign the bill into law, or veto it entirely.
Ian Wilder is a current features writer and former state politics reporter for The Daily Cardinal. Follow him on Twitter at @IanWWilder.