By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — The governor who watched Kenosha burn at the hands of rioters has killed a bill criminalizing riots.
Gov. Tony Evers last week vetoed Senate Bill 296, legislation that defines what a riot is in state statute (Spoiler Alert: It’s not a “peaceful protest”), and creates criminal penalties for those attending and engaging in a riot.
In his veto message, the governor said the measure “could be used to infringe on rights guaranteed under the First Amendment. Suddenly, the governor who tried to force Milwaukee TV stations to remove Empower Wisconsin’s ads critical of his slow response to the August 2020 Kenosha riots is concerned about the First Amendment.
“I am incredibly frustrated that the Governor vetoed a bill to discourage destructive behavior and create a path of recourse in the wake of riots that caused millions of dollars of damage to our communities,” said state Rep. John Spiros (R-Marshfield), co-author of the bill. “Over the course of the past few years, riots created safety risks for those trying to peacefully protest, first responders, and bystanders. Even one of my legislative colleagues was victim to the violence that arose from these riots.”
Spiros is referring to Sen. Tim Carpenter, a Milwaukee Democrat who was badly beaten when Black Lives Matter rioters smashed up Madison’s Capitol Square, ripped down iconic statues, and tried to burn down the City County Building.
Evers has been criticized by law enforcement and lawmakers for his incendiary comments that preceded the 2020 riots in Kenosha, comments that some say helped light the fuse. He was slow to send in adequate Wisconsin Army National Guard members to help police restore law and order and looters and rioters smashed up and burned down portions of Kenosha’s Uptown and Downtown districts.
The bill defines a riot as a “public disturbance that involves an unlawful assembly.” The disturbance would have to include an act of violence by at least one person that constitutes a “clear and present danger” of property damage or personal injury, a threat of an act of violence or an act that substantially obstructs law enforcement or a government function.
Senate Bill 296 would have made attending or inciting a riot or blocking or obstructing the lawful use of a thoroughfare while participating in a riot a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to nine months in jail and a $10,000 fine. Knowingly participating in a riot that results in substantial damage to property or personal injury would be a Class I felony, punishable by up to 3 1/2 years in prison and a $10,000 fines. Individuals convicted of the misdemeanor or felony would face mandatory minimum jail sentences of 30 and 45 days.
Scott Carpenter, who lost in the riot fires the family furniture store his parents started 42 years ago, told a legislative committee last year that the damage done by rioters can’t simply be written off through insurance. Not every business is insured. Not every business is fully insured. Carpenter and his family lost lots of inventory in the riots, much of which was “underinsured.”
“Just because you’re insured does not give someone the right to take away what is yours,” he said, adding that somebody has to pay for the damage. That somebody is ultimately the businesses hit with higher premiums and the customers who will have to make up the difference in higher prices.
Evers, who has come under fire for his soft-on-crime policies, did get a round applause from the ACLU.
“The bill would have undermined Wisconsinites’ freedom to express themselves through protest, and Gov. Evers’ choice to reject it has ensured that this fundamental constitutional right is protected,” said Melinda Brennan, executive director of the ACLU of Wisconsin.
Spiros said most states define “riot” in their statutes. Rioters don’t have a constitutional right to destructive behavior.
“The bottom line is Governor Evers purposely delayed providing support to communities that were faced with the kind of violence not seen in decades. It’s unsurprising that he now chooses to veto this bill and support rioters. Wisconsinites deserve better,” the lawmaker said.