By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — While Democrats are quick to cry “insurrection!”, they can’t bring themselves to call a riot a riot.
Dems voted en masse this week against 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.
The bill now moves to Gov. Tony Evers’ desk. 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.
“This should be a no-brainer,” said Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine), co-author of the legislation.
Perhaps, but the senator’s bar might be too high for liberals in the state Legislature, many who have supported defunding police to fight a crime epidemic.
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 makes 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.
Wanggaard said the bill is about sending a message that the kind of violence and destruction Kenosha experienced at the hands of rioters in August 2020 will not be tolerated in Wisconsin.
Rioters and looters ravaged Kenosha’s Uptown and Downtown business districts following the officer-involved shooting of a black man who repeatedly resisted arrest and had a knife during a domestic incident. The demonstrations that turned violent were anything but “mostly peaceful,” as Evers and backers of the Black Lives Matter movement have tried to paint them. Kenosha, by all reasonable accounts, was under siege during several days of riots.
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.
Democrats held tightly on to their “peaceful protester” rhetoric, insisting the measure would target the right to demonstrate.
“Protest is democracy,” Rep. Francesca Hong, D-Madison said Tuesday. “This bill brought forward today by my friends across the aisle is a declaration of war against the First Amendment.”
State Rep. John Spiros (R-Marshfield), co-author of the bill, said the bill targets rioting, which most people believe should be against the law.
“To be clear, the bill will not affect peaceful protests or infringe on First Amendment rights. It is designed to discourage destructive behavior and create a path of recourse for riots that do damage to our communities,” Spiros said, pointing to other riots, including a Madison demonstration that smashed up the Capitol and threatened to burn down the Dane County Jail.
Several law enforcement organizations support the legislation.
“Crime is rising and support for law enforcement officers is at an all-time low. It is imperative that we support those who keep our communities safe,” Spiros said.