Brief

Damage to historical properties could become class I felony

By: - January 7, 2022 5:54 am
Hans Christian Heg statute 2012

Wisconsin State Capitol A statue of Hans Christian Heg in front of the capitol; he was a native of Norway who served as a colonel with the Wisconsin volunteers in the Civil War. Photo by Phil Roeder CC BY 2.0

Damaging or leaving graffiti on a historical monument like a statue, plaque, or painting on public land could become a class I felony in the state of Wisconsin. At least, that’s the goal of a bill authored by Rep. Andre’ Jacque (R-DePere) and Rep. William Penterman (R-Columbus) introduced to the Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety. The bill is a direct response to damage inflicted on historical statues during Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020.

Two statues on the grounds of  the Capitol in Madison were damaged during the early days of the marches. One was Lady Forward, which was originally created in 1893 and of which a replica was erected in 1996. The statue depicts a woman standing with one arm outstretched, and the other clasping an American flag. It’s said to represent Wisconsin’s “forward” motto, and was purchased by women’s suffrage organizations on behalf of their movement.

The other statue depicts Col.Hans Christian Heg and was pulled down and dumped in nearby Lake Monona. Heg, who died on an American Civil War battlefield, was an immigrant from Norway celebrated as an anti-slavery crusader and prison reform advocate. Heg served as commissioner of the Waupun prison in 1859, which is now the state’s oldest operating prison. Some protesters decried Heg’s association with the prison, others felt the state had not made the progress the statutes were said to represent. Some 75 businesses were also damaged in Madison in protests that  followed the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

Penterman said during the committee hearing on Wednesday that the statues “represent the valor of all Wisconsinites.” He added that they have been restored, but added that they should never have been damaged in the first place. “There should not be a license to destroy public property and to cause damage through a civil unrest,” Penterman said. He called the proposed felonies “a common sense extension of penalties that are already in place.”

Some members of the committee questioned the necessity for the bill, as damaging property is already illegal. Rep. Tip McGuire (D-Kenosha) also questioned in what situations the bill would be applied. McGuire asked, “Why graffiti? I guess, you know, if a 19-year-old college student on St. Patrick’s day gets green paint on Hans Christian Heg, do you want them to be charged with a felony?”

Jacque stated that although existing statutes grant discretion to prosecutors pursuing vandalism charges, he felt it remains necessary to specifically include historical property on public land. “This is, I think, more comprehensively re-writing the statute as it was intended to be written in the first place to be able to include that historically significant property,” he explained. “We already have increased penalties for damage to churches or cemeteries. And I think if you are doing damage to historically significant property or, you know, something like a law enforcement memorial in the Capitol that has seen graffiti in the past, I do think that having the option to charge that greater penalty is appropriate.”

McGuire questioned whether Jacque is under the impression that under current law, people who damage historically significant property can’t be charged with a crime. Additionally, under current law, felony charges become appropriate depending on the amount of damage and costs of that damage. McGuire wondered whether that meant that behavior which wouldn’t currently meet the threshold of a felony charge would be punished disproportionately if the bill were to pass.

Jacque honed in on the unrest of 2020 in justifying his bill. “When you look at disrespect for the rule of law, order,” he said, “things we saw, things here in the Capitol, things we saw in Kenosha, things we saw with public buildings, things we saw with correctional facilities … any of those, I believe if you have damage that is done to the people’s buildings, the people’s history and monuments, I believe [that should be punished] across the board,” said Jacque.

Rep. David Bowen asked how the use of materials such as  spray chalk, which washes off with water or rain, would be treated under the proposed legislation. Legislative counsel responded, “that’s an interesting question,” and said answering it would require further review. Impermanent chalk, spray chalk, and similar items were commonplace during the 2020 protests. Marchers chalked messages on sidewalks and streets. Chalk was used to create messages and art on the walls of the Milwaukee County Jail and Safety Building during the early summer. The messages washed away within days.

Other legislators , including Rep. David Steffen (R-Green Bay) expressed the view that the problem  lies with prosecutors who decline to pursue the stiffest penalties possible for damage to property. At bottom, however, Jacque and some committee members said the penalties were about more than monetary value. “This is kind of an exception to that,” said Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers). “Kind of regardless of the monetary impact, we’re going to place this at a certain level. It’s at a higher importance than its monetary value.” Becoming emotional as he recounted some of Heg’s biography, Jacque responded, “I believe that there is a greater penalty that should apply.” A class I felony can carry up to three and one-half years in state prison, and fines up to $10,000.

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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.

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