Gov. Tony Evers has been a steady defender of freedom of speech. When right-wing zealots sought to limit freedom of expression on UW campuses last year, he blocked them. When right-wing zealots rallied against his efforts to keep Wisconsin safe last week, he defended their rights.

Asked about the protests against his safer-at-home orders, the governor said he respected the protesters’ free speech rights. He said he hoped they would maintain a safe distance apart from one another.

About 1,500 people rallied in Madison Friday to object to a lockdown Evers and public health workers extended to combat a virus that — as of Friday — had been confirmed in roughly 5,700 Wisconsinites and had killed close to 260.

The greatest harm of the rally was to the image of critics of the governor and advocates for a science-based response to the crisis. While many of those who have joined recent “reopen” protests in Wisconsin and elsewhere were sincerely concerned about when and how states will reopen, their cause was done no good by those who showed up in Madison carrying guns or, in the case of a Brookfield gathering the previous weekend, a Confederate flag.

Prominent supporters of the protests tacitly acknowledged the damage.

As The New York Times reported, “Brian Westrate, the treasurer of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, posted to a private Facebook group for organizers and some attendees of the Madison rally, asking people not to bring emblems of causes other than resisting the stay-at-home order.”

“OK folks, I implore you, please leave Confederate flags and/or AR15s, AK47s, or any other long guns at home,” Westrate wrote, adding, “I well understand that the Confederacy was more about states rights than slavery. But that does not change the truth of how we should try to control the optics ...”

The GOP official’s statement regarding the Civil War led Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty to tweet: “‘The confederacy was more about rights than slavery.’ Somewhere, this guy’s high school history teacher is weeping.”

Friday’s protest took place near a statue of Col. Hans Christian Heg. The Norwegian-born activist became a leader of the Wide Awakes, a group that sought to protect fugitive slaves before the Civil War. Heg was a pioneering member of the Republican Party. His life offers a rebuke to those who imagine the Confederacy as anything other than an affront to the ideal that all human beings are created equal.

When the southern states revolted against the U.S. in an effort to defend human bondage, Heg organized Norwegian immigrants and others into the 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment. Determined to defeat the Confederacy, he declared, “There is no alternative but this: death and destruction for us and our Government, or the crushing of the rebellion.”

The fight would cost Heg his life. He was mortally wounded on Sept. 19, 1863.

Heg and those who fought and died with him knew what they were fighting for. “We came to America because it is a free country,” Heg said. “Its principles of freedom struck a responsive chord in our heart. Our anti-slavery convictions are deep.”

The Civil War was not an argument about states’ rights but a struggle against human bondage. Most Wisconsinites, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, maintain that understanding.

Capital Times