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Whenever political commentator Rachel Maddow of MSNBC wants the viewers to pay attention to something, she frequently says “watch this space.” Last week, three Senate bills introduced by Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) occupy that space. Drafted in response to the 2016 unrest in Sherman Park, after the Syville Smith shooting by a Milwaukee Police officer, this legislation is centered on the issue of rioting.

State Sen. Lena Taylor

Nothing wrong with that, right? Wrong! A closer look at the proposed laws reveals chilling questions about the interpretation and effect on an individual’s rights to free speech and assembly.

As a reminder, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Simply put, one of the things the First Amendment guarantees is freedom of expression by prohibiting Congress from restricting the rights of individuals to speak freely. It also guarantees the right of citizens to assemble peaceably and to petition their government. These “rioting” bills bump uncomfortably close up against the right of gathering and feel like newly proposed “felony legislation” in search of a crime.

“But here’s the rub. For years, UW-Madison students and visitors, for no other reason than a Halloween street party, had caused riots and destruction of property, just blocks from the Capitol. Police were assaulted, full riot gear needed, and yet no law on “rioting.” Milwaukee residents protest questionable shootings and deaths of African-Americans at the hands of the police, property is damaged, NOW we need a law?”

Senate Bill 303 defines a riot as public disturbance that involves an act of violence, as part of an assembly of at least three persons, that constitutes a clear and present danger of property damage or personal injury or a threat of an act of violence, as part of an assembly of at least three persons having the ability of immediate execution of the threat, if the threatened action would constitute a clear and present danger of property damage or personal injury. SB 304 would make it a Class A misdemeanor to block a road during a riot and SB 305 would make it a felony to bring a gun to a riot.

But here’s the rub. For years, UW-Madison students and visitors, for no other reason than a Halloween street party, had caused riots and destruction of property, just blocks from the Capitol. Police were assaulted, full riot gear needed, and yet no law on “rioting.” Milwaukee residents protest questionable shootings and deaths of African-Americans at the hands of the police, property is damaged, NOW we need a law?

These bills could also cause innocent citizens to be charged with a felony due to the actions of others, allow property damage of $50 to be charged the same way as damage of $50,000, and is overly broad. As with most applications of the law, the black community is usually treated harsher, with far more reaching consequences. Don’t get me wrong. It IS important to deal with destructive behavior during public gatherings. We currently have laws on the books to do just that. We also need to deal with the behavior of some in law enforcement and lack of justice that leads many in my community with no place to go but to the streets to voice their concerns.

Written by State Sen. Lena Taylor

State Sen. Lena Taylor

Wisconsin State Sen. Lena Taylor represents the 4th State Senate District in Milwaukee.

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