Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced legislation Monday to crack down on what he called "violent" protests, but civil liberties groups say it's an obvious attempt to punish protected First Amendment activities.
DeSantis' proposed legislation is called the Combating Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act. The bill would raise criminal penalties for protest-related offenses, make organizers and other participants liable for violence and/or property destruction that occurs at protests, and block state funding to county and local governments that cut law enforcement budgets, among other provisions.
"Our right to peacefully assemble is one of our most cherished as Americans, but throughout the country we've seen that right being taken advantage of by professional agitators, bent on sowing disorder and causing mayhem in our cities," DeSantis said at a press conference Monday, flanked by Republican leaders and law enforcement officials. "I will not allow this kind of violence to occur here in Florida."
Today I announced bold legislation that creates new criminal offenses and increases penalties for those who target law enforcement and participate in violent or disorderly assemblies. We will always stand with our men and women in uniform who keep our communities safe. pic.twitter.com/ITl5GmmrZJ
— Ron DeSantis (@GovRonDeSantis) September 21, 2020
The proposal is part of a trend of conservative lawmakers introducing bills to further criminalize protests following massive demonstrations and violent unrest this summer over the police killing of George Floyd. Last month, Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill into law making it a felony for protesters to camp on state grounds and criminalize marking government buildings with chalk.
Civil liberties groups in Florida say DeSantis' legislation is an affront to the Constitution. In a statement, Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, called DeSantis' proposed legislation "undemocratic and hostile to Americans' shared values."
"This effort has one goal: silence, criminalize, and penalize Floridians who want to see justice for Black lives lost to racialized violence and brutality at the hands of law enforcement," Kubic said.
Specifically, DeSantis' legislation would
- make it a third-degree felony when seven or more people are in "an assembly and cause damage to property or injury"
- make it a third-degree felony to obstruct traffic during an unpermitted protest and remove criminal liability for drivers who injure or kill someone "if fleeing to safety from a mob"
- make it a second-degree felony to destroy property during an unlawful assembly
- attach RICO liability to "anyone who organizes or funds a violent or disorderly assembly"
- create a new mandatory minimum six-month sentence for striking a law enforcement officer during a "violent assembly"
- prohibit state grants or aid "to any local government that slashes the budget for law enforcement services"
- and hold defendants charged with a crime related to an unlawful assembly without bail until their first court appearance.
The legislative text has not been released yet, so there are no details on how exactly these proposals would be applied. DeSantis told reporters at his press conference that the law would only block funding to local governments that "disproportionately" targeted police budgets.
Carrie Boyd, policy director for Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund, said in a statement that if DeSantis' legislation passes, "it would put people at risk of going to jail who did nothing wrong."
"We've already seen police abusing their power to arrest people who protest officer misconduct," Boyd continued. "This type of legislation has no place in Florida and we ask the state attorney office to not prosecute if it does become law."
Florida was largely spared from destructive violence and looting that spread across the country this summer. In fact, local investigative reporting has shown that much of the violence during Florida protests was instigated by police, not protesters.
In Fort Lauderdale, a May 31 clash between police and protesters led to one officer being indicted on battery charges and one protester hospitalized after she was shot in the head with a rubber bullet.
Fort Lauderdale police claimed they were responding to a mob of "violent agitators" that attacked police. However, the Miami Herald reported that "the visual documentation supports what witnesses have been saying for weeks: that a police officer ignited the violent clash that lasted for two hours in the streets of downtown Fort Lauderdale."
The Herald obtained body camera footage showing officers laughing as they shot protesters with rubber bullets. "Did you see me fuck up those motherfuckers?" one of the officers said, mistakenly under the impression that his body camera was turned off.
The Florida Times-Union reported this week that the Jacksonville State Attorney's Office has dropped the prosecutions of 63 out of 66 arrests made by Jacksonville police during protests over May 30 and 31:
The Sheriff's Office recently released a dozen body-camera videos that show arrests of protesters. The videos show protesters seeming to comply with police — in one case a woman asked which way to walk and then she was arrested for not dispersing; in another case, a woman said she was walking to her car; in another case, a man on the Main Street bridge jumped over a concrete barrier after the crowd had bottlenecked. Each said they were following police orders and asked why they were arrested.
"You need to leave or you're going to jail," an officer says in one video. A woman limping away shouts back at them, "What is the matter with you people?" Officers then arrest her.
Several of DeSantis' proposals, like making demonstrators and organizers liable for the actions of others might not be constitutional, while measures that would yank funding from cities to protect police officers' feelings are simply brainless culture-war fodder.
DeSantis and state Republican leaders said the legislation will be their top priority for the next legislative session.