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Wisconsin GOP to vote on tougher penalties for protesters

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FILE - in this Aug. 25, 2020 file photo, Kyle Rittenhouse, left, with backwards cap, walks along Sheridan Road in Kenosha, Wis., with another armed civilian. (Adam Rogan/The Journal Times via AP, File)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republican legislators were poised Tuesday to vote on a pair of bills that would create tougher penalties for protesters who participate in riots and deface public statues.

The bills come after protesters burned swaths of downtown Kenosha and damaged the Hans Christian Heg and Lady Forward statues at the state Capitol during demonstrations in the summer of 2020.

The protests figure to be a key talking point for Republicans as they try to paint Democrats as soft on crime on the campaign trail this year. U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson has already accused Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is running to unseat Johnson this fall, of not acting quickly enough to stop the protests in Kenosha and spurring on protesters.

The first bill would define a riot as a public disturbance that involves an unlawful assembly and an act of violence or a threat of violence committed by at least one person.

Attending such a gathering would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to nine months in jail with a mandatory minimum of 30 days behind bars. Participating in such an event that results in property damage or injuries would be a felony punishable by up to three-and-a-half years in prison with a 45-day mandatory minimum sentence. Anyone who attacks or throws a bodily substance at a National Guard member would be guilty of a felony punishable by up to three-and-a-half years in prison.

“This bill is not meant to affect the peaceful protests like some we witnessed (during the summer of 2020), but instead is designed to discourage destructive behavior,” the bill’s chief Assembly sponsor, Rep. John Spiros, said in written remarks submitted to the Senate judiciary committee in August. “We witnessed firsthand that penalties and definitions need to be put in place to provide clarity on the recourse for riots in our state, and this bill accomplishes that objective.”

The second bill would make damaging or defacing government property of historical significance a felony punishable by up to three-and-a-years in prison. Damaging historical state property is already a felony under state law but the property must be included on a Department of Natural Resources registry of prominent landscape features to qualify.

The bill’s chief Senate sponsor, Andre Jacque, said in written remarks to the Assembly criminal justice committee earlier this month that he’s heard from “countless outraged constituents” about the damage done to the Heg and Lady Forward statues.

“There shouldn’t be license to destroy public property and to cause damage through civil unrest,” Jacques wrote.

The Assembly and Senate were scheduled to vote on the riot penalties bill within hours of each other Tuesday. Approval by both houses would send the bill to Evers. The Assembly was expected to vote on the historical property bill sometime Tuesday afternoon or evening. Passage would send that measure on to the Senate for future scheduling.

The governor’s spokeswoman, Britt Cudaback, didn’t immediately respond to a message inquiring about his stance on the bills. The American Civil Liberties Union, the city of Milwaukee and government watchdog groups Common Cause in Wisconsin and Wisconsin Democracy Campaign have all registered in opposition of the riot penalties bill. No groups have registered in support or opposition of the statue bill.

The summer of 2020 was marked by multiple protests across the country in response to the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd died on Memorial Day.

In August 2020 a white police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, after he resisted arrest during a domestic disturbance in Kenosha. The shooting left Blake paralyzed from the waist down.

Evers commented hours after the shooting that Blake wasn’t the first Black person who has been “shot or injured or mercilessly killed at the hands of individuals in law enforcement.” Several nights of protests ensued, marked by burning buildings and looting. Evers was forced to call in the National Guard.

Kyle Rittenhouse shot three protesters during one of the demonstrations, killing two of them. He argued he fired in self-defense after the three men attacked him; a jury acquitted him of homicide charges late last year. Everyone involved in the shootings was white.

Protests erupted in Madison two months before Blake was shot after police arrested a Black man for shouting at restaurant customers while brandishing a baseball bat. Two women were charged with assaulting Sen. Tim Carpenter on the Capitol lawn and protesters tore down the Heg statue and damaged Lady Forward.

Heg was a Wisconsin abolitionist who was killed fighting in the Civil War; Lady Forward is a sculpture of a woman symbolizing the state’s “Forward” motto. Both statues were repaired and restored to their podiums this past September.

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