As the nation braces for the verdict in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis cop who killed George Floyd last May, the state of Florida has enacted sweeping and draconian restrictions on protest, and even given the state the power to veto local funding funding cuts to police budgets.
Signing the “Combating Public Disorder Act” into law on Monday, Governor Ron DeSantis declared, “We are taking an unapologetic stand for the rule of law and public safety.” But the Republican, and close Trump ally, also made it plain that the true legislative intent was to criminalizing the protest tactics of those he denounced as “the radical left.”
The signing brought immediate condemnation from defenders of civil liberties. “Let’s be clear: this is not an anti-riot bill,” said Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. “It is a bill that criminalizes peaceful protest,” he said, adding that the law is a blast from the state’s segregationist past: “Each and every provision harkens back to Jim Crow.”
The Florida law gives police broad new powers to impose collective punishment on those engaged in protest. First, it lowers the threshold of a “riot” to include as few as three people engaging in “violent and disorderly conduct.” This could subject anyone at an otherwise peaceful event where such a disturbance occurs to third-degree felony charges, punishable by up to five years in prison and the loss of the right to vote. The bill also creates a new second-degree felony of “aggravated rioting” for any large group action that, among other not-clearly-harmful and vaguely-described impacts, “endangers the safe movement of a vehicle traveling on a public street, highway, or road.” Further, the law creates a new, hazy, misdemeanor charge of “mob intimidation” that requires anyone so charged to be held until their first bail hearing — effectively giving cops carte blanche to lock up protesters overnight.
While broadly criminalizing protest, the bill also shields Floridians from civil liability if they happen to injure or kill a protester involved in a demonstration the authorities label a “riot.” According to testimony by the state ACLU: “A white supremacist who maliciously drove his car into protesters… like the one in Charlottesville that killed Heather Heyer, would be able to assert an affirmative defense under this bill.” The new law in Florida — a former Confederate state with dozens of public memorials to those who fought to preserve slavery — also heightens punishment for protesters who damage or deface public monuments or flags, subjecting them to felony charges and forcing them to pay restitution for any damages.
Passed by self-styled conservatives, the law enhances the power of the state government at the expense of local jurisdictions, taking aim at progressive politicians who attempt to rein in aggressive police tactics or bloated police budgets. Specifically, the law exposes local governments to financial liability for damages to property if they are found not to have responded aggressively enough to a riot or and “unlawful assembly.” The law also grants the state government power to review and reverse cuts made by local elected officials to their law-enforcement budgets.
A broad coalition of progressives has been quick to blast the power grab in Tallahassee. Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava denounced the new law for “preventing local governments from effectively allocating public safety resources.” Adora Obi Nweze, president of the Florida chapter of the NAACP, called the new law “racist, discriminatory, unwise, unlawful, and unjust” and vowed: “We won’t sit silent on this issue, and we won’t let this stop peaceful protests across the state of Florida.”
“Every single Floridian should be outraged by this blatant attempt to erode our First Amendment right to peacefully assemble,” added Kubic of the Florida ACLU. “Gov. DeSantis’ championing of and signature on this law degrades, debases, and disgraces Florida and our democracy.”
For his part DeSantis mugged for the cameras and played to a national audience of FoxNews watchers. “If you riot, loot, harm others, particularly law enforcement, you’re going to jail,” he said. “We’re not going to end up like Portland.”