A law in Florida that was disingenuously presented as being “anti-riot” when it is, in fact, anti-peaceful protester, has been deemed unconstitutional, a federal judge decided on Thursday. The ruling dealt a blow to Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ apparent anti-Black agenda upon which the law passed months ago and decried as “racist” was based.
“If this court does not enjoin the statute’s enforcement, the lawless actions of a few rogue individuals could effectively criminalize the protected speech of hundreds, if not thousands, of law-abiding Floridians,” U.S. District Judge Mark Walker wrote in his 90-page decision, the Associated Press reported.
Walker added: “It unfortunately takes only a handful of bad actors to transform a peaceful protest into a violent public disturbance.”
There was no immediate response to the ruling from DeSantis.
The law was enacted back in April, one day before a Minneapolis jury found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd, an event that spurred the very peaceful protests that lawmakers wanted to see targeted with the law.
The language of the so-called “anti-riot” law is extra troubling.
Not only does it enhance penalties for existing offenses and prevent local municipalities from reallocating funds from police budgets to other needed services, but it also enacts penalties against local governments that seek to address police response to protests.
It also increases penalties for damaging confederate memorials by up to 10 years in prison and notably, harshens punishments 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.”
Democratic opponents and grassroots organizers have argued the law was not only unnecessary but also dangerous.
“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 press conference about the new law back in April. “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 accurately predicted in April that the law violated the First Amendment.
“Our response to injustice in this country is protest,” Jones said.
The African American Policy Forum previously sounded the alarm about the legislation and said when it was introduced last year 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.”
Judge Walker’s ruling showed that he agreed and then some.
This is America.