Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed a controversial bill into law that could embolden violence against protesters and would criminalize the right to protest nonviolently in certain instances. Democratic opponents and grassroots organizers argue the law was not only unnecessary but dangerous.
The so-called anti-riot law came on the same day a jury began deliberating in the murder trial for Derek Chauvin, the former police officer accused of killing George Floyd. The case factored into the timing of the bill being signed into law, DeSantis said Monday.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I can tell you that case was bungled by the attorney general there in Minnesota. They didn’t handle it properly, so there may be some people disappointed,” DeSantis said.
Anti-protest laws have been introduced in several states in response to racial justice protests over the past few years, increasing since last summer’s uprisings. Florida Republicans tried to use the Jan. 6 Capitol attack to justify the need for House Bill 1, but DeSantis didn’t mention it when he signed the new law.
Flanked by a group of mostly white men, including some law enforcement, DeSantis used a press conference to admonish racial justice protests.
HB 1 enhances penalties for existing offenses and prevents local municipalities from reallocating funds from police budgets to other needed services. The bill also enacts penalties against local governments that seek to address police response to protests. It increased penalties for damaging confederate memorials by up to 10 years in prison.
Notably, the new law also harshens punishment for committing crimes during a protest, effectively delaying, if not eliminating, the option of bail for related arrests and creating new felony-level crimes for participating in demonstrations that were not previously illegal.
The first part of the bill’s language is devoted to “new criminal offenses to combat rioting, looting and violence,” including a section that addresses protesters who obstruct roadways. Those found to be guilty of doing so could face 3rd-degree felony charges. In addition, however, any driver who just happens to hit protesters obstructing a roadway “is NOT liable for injury or death caused if fleeing for safety from a mob.”
“As a father trying to raise four young Black men in this state, HB 1 terrifies me,” said Florida State Rep. Bobby B. DuBose during a separate press conference about the new law. “This will be used to silence and harm, Black and Brown Floridians if you haven’t lived it. You don’t understand the constant fear that members of our community live with daily.
State Sen. Shervin Jones said DeSantis had declared war on the First Amendment with the new law. “Our response to injustice in this country is protest,” Jones said.
Jones noted how DeSantis never called out the white supremacists who stormed the Capitol and instead focuses on criminalizing people protesting police violence and demanding social justice.
“Not only is this racist at its core, but it’s also a reaction to what occurred over the summer after the death of George Floyd,” Jones said. “The governor made no mention of the Jan. 6 insurrection.”
Jones said DeSantis used his time to clarify what actions would be taken if there was a not guilty verdict in Chauvin’s case, which has been the center of ongoing protests for nearly a year.
“I will not compromise bipartisanship for injustice,” Jones declared.
Nailah Summers, interim co-director of the Dream Defenders, said that DeSantis and Florida Republicans should be ashamed for prioritizing this law over actual needs.
“Our public servants should be bending over backward to meet the needs of their constituents and answering the calls for safety and justice for Black lives; instead, they are approving unpopular, discriminatory laws that will make life harder for the people in this state,” Summers said in a statement.
Like many parts of the country, Florida has been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, with some residents still struggling with unemployment, housing, and other related issues. DeSantis has said he does not back a bipartisan effort to raise Florida’s unemployment assistance.
Francesca Menes, co-founder and board chair of the Black Collective, saw the new bill to respond to effective organizing and turnout in 2020. Menes explained the law is intentionally vague and gave law enforcement broader discretion to interpret gatherings of people. Under the new law, a group of three or more people.
“This bill is a direct response to our effective organizing, locally and across the nation, to reimagine public safety and value Black lives,” Menes said. “House Bill 1 will disproportionately criminalize Blacks in Florida, undermine our free speech, and punish local governments for responding to the calls to prioritize the needs of their communities.
The African American Policy Forum previously sounded the alarm about the legislation and said when it was introduced back in September that the bill sends “as loud a signal as possible that [DeSantis] is okay with, and would even encourage, anyone who wants to use their car or truck to mow down BLM protesters.” The nonprofit think tank dedicated to dismantling structural inequality added: “We should not understate how dangerous this is.”