- President Donald Trump is threatening protesters toppling and vandalizing statues with up to ten years in prison, citing a law designed to protect memorials honouring veterans.
- The Veterans’ Memorial Preservation Act states that anyone who damages or destroys a statue, plaque, or monument honouring a veteran for their service in the US military will face a maximum penalty of up to a decade behind bars.
- The law likely does not apply to many of the statues that have been targeted in recent protests, such as those honouring segregationists, Confederate leaders or explorers who committed crimes against indigenous peoples.
- Other laws and regulations prohibit trespassing and vandalism on federal grounds.
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President Donald Trump is threatening protesters with up to ten years in prison for vandalizing monuments with a law protecting memorials to US veterans.
The president sent out his first threat on Twitter Monday night in a tweet stating that “numerous people were arrested” as protesters vandalised and attempted to tear down the statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Park in Washington DC.
The president then doubled down Tuesday morning, tweeting that he has “authorised the Federal Government to arrest anyone who vandalizes or destroys any monument, statue or other such Federal property in the US with up to 10 years in prison, per the Veteran’s Memorial Preservation Act, or such other laws that may be pertinent.”
“This action is taken effective immediately, but may also be used retroactively for destruction or vandalism already caused,” he added. “There will be no exceptions!”
As the Veterans’ Memorial Preservation Act is already in effect, there is no need for presidential authorization to enforce it. And it is likely the law would not apply to many of the statues currently being targeted by protesters.
The Memorial Day death of George Floyd, a Black man who died at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, sparked protests across the country, and there is now a growing movement to topple Confederate monuments and memorials, as well as those celebrating slave holders, explorers, and conquerors.
In the case of Andrew Jackson, whose statue protesters attempted to pull down Monday night, activists have long criticised the former US Army general turned president for his mistreatment of indigenous peoples, including the forced relocation of tens of thousands of Native Americans from the southeastern US in a tragedy known as the “Trail of Tears.”
The 2003 Veterans’ Memorial Preservation Act was passed in response to the vandalism of veteran cemeteries.
The law states that whoever “wilfully injures or destroys, or attempts to injure or destroy, any structure, plaque, statue, or other monument on public property commemorating the service of any person or persons in the armed forces of the United States” will face a maximum penalty of up to ten years in prison.
The act also states clearly that the penalty could be a fine. A crime’s maximum penalty is not handed down in all cases.
It is not enough that a monument is celebrating a person who served in the US military. Unless the monument is specifically honouring the individual’s service in the US military, it is not protected under the Veterans’ Memorial Protection Act.
While the law might not protect a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, it could apply to recent vandalism of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, a memorial with a plaque that reads: “Beneath this stone rests a soldier of Washington’s army who died to give you liberty.”
This law would not not apply to the destruction of statues honouring, for instance, Christopher Columbus, who set foot in the Bahamas with an intent to “subjugate,” according to his journal, and later took as captives as many as 500 natives back to Spain.
Trump “may have some leverage to try to protect certain federal monuments, but it is unclear that the federal law he cites does that,” Carl Tobias, who hold the Williams Chair in Law at Richmond University, told Business Insider’s Tom Porter.
Even if certain statues and monuments are not protected under the Veterans’ Memorial Preservation Act, there are other regulations prohibiting trespassing and vandalism on federal grounds.
Trump has tweeted repeatedly about the perceived need to protect statues and monuments. Over the weekend, for instance, he criticised the Washington DC police after protesters tore down and set fire to a statue of Confederate Brigadier General Albert Pike.
The president has also voiced his objections to pushes both inside and outside the US military to rename US Army bases named after Confederate military leaders.