Environmental activists concerned about riot bill

‘Once a right can be taken away from anybody it can be taken away from everybody, including you’

By: - January 25, 2022 6:08 am
Protesters gather in Kenosha the second night of protests on August 24th, 2020. This was before the clashes with police later that night. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Protesters gather in Kenosha the second night of protests on August 24th, 2020. This was before the clashes with police later that night. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Climate and environmental activists are raising the alarm about a so-called riot bill which will come up for a vote in the Senate and the Assembly on Tuesday. Organizers from Madison 350 are encouraging people to call legislators to express their thoughts and concerns about the Senate and Assembly versions of the bill. The proposed legislation, introduced  by Republicans in both chambers, would make it a Class A misdemeanor to attend a riot as defined by the legislation and would criminalize blocking or obstructing a thoroughfare while participating in a riot. Those who “knowingly participate in a riot that results in substantial damage to property or personal injury,” under the bill, would face a Class I felony.

Although it’s not the first time such a bill has been pushed in Wisconsin, the legislation found new life after 2020. Property destruction that followed the shooting of Jacob Blake by a Kenosha police officer has become the focus of the push. However, the bill has been criticized for being over-broad and could apply to  various nonviolent protest actions. Though property destruction and violence did occur during 2020, protests were occurring on a near daily basis for over a year. Many protests which did not result in violence, property destruction, or clashes with police did involve street marches which could slow or block traffic. The anti-riot bills’ inclusion of language addressing that very activity worries activists.

The role of the police in our society has been under a microscope since the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department in May, 2020. Local Policing is an ongoing series analyzing the culture, tactics and actions of departments big and small across Wisconsin. If you have a story to share about your local police, reach out to reporters Isiah Holmes and Henry Redman at [email protected] and [email protected]

Police misconduct was the main issue sparking protests and unrest in 2020. However, some Wisconsinites are concerned that the bills will also affect organizing on other issues like climate and oil pipeline resistance efforts. Phyllis Hasbrouck, an activist with Madison 350, which focuses on climate and the environment, denounced the bill, telling Wisconsin Examiner, “this is a really radical bill. It’s really stripping us of our constitutional rights to freedom of speech.”

Sections of the bill that involve the blocking of buildings or thoroughfares particularly worry  Hasbrouck. At times, protests of  the controversial Line 3 and Line 5 pipelines have involved the blocking of a street for just a couple of minutes. Not only could the action be called an unlawful assembly but, under the legislation, it would become a riot if there was an act or threat of violence that would “constitute a clear and present danger” of property damage or injury. “What it means is that you could have a small thing like we did,” says Hasbrouck, “or a large demonstration that is totally peaceful, and somebody who may not even be a part of the group threatens to push somebody. Now they have threatened to commit an act of violence and they have the ability to do so. And then, oops, we’re all in a riot now. And nothing was actually hurt, nobody, no property, but we’re in a riot. And then the police say disperse, or maybe they don’t say disperse. Maybe they just start arresting.”

She further highlights the penalties described in the bill. Even the Class A misdemeanor, less serious than the felony charges included in the bill’s language, carries a mandatory minimum of 30 days of incarceration for attending an assembly which is declared a riot. The felony, which is levied for “participating in a riot,” carries a 45-day mandatory minimum. Even if violence does occur during a demonstration, Hasbrouck notes that destruction, violence, and hurting others are already covered by existing laws.

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Members of Madison 350 haven’t experienced much resistance or pushback against their demonstrations. The story is different for pipeline resistance in Minnesota, where some Wisconsinites have traveled to stand in solidarity with indigenous-led actions against pipeline projects on Native American land. Many have returned with tales of police surveillance, mass arrests, and violent crackdowns. Hasbrouck experienced some of that during her own trip to Minnesota.

In Wisconsin, the stage may have been set in 2019, after a bill passed on a bipartisan vote to make it a felony to trespass on a pipeline project.

Hasbrouck feels that people who support the bill out of fear of protest are missing the point. “Once a right can be taken away from anybody it can be taken away from everybody, including you,” she stressed. “So if you think it’s fine to arrest people who have this other cause from yours, and you pass a law like this so that anyone in power can now direct the police to arrest anybody that does a tiny little thing wrong — or someone else came to their demonstration and did something wrong — this could happen to you, too.” To those who say the law is needed to help people feel safe she counters, “I don’t think that anybody will be feeling safe if we become a police state.”

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.

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