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Florida has adopted a law that its governor calls the “strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement measure in the country” but that critics say infringes on First Amendment rights. The controversial legislation was signed as the nation awaits a verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd, which sparked nationwide unrest.
The Combating Public Disorder bill, signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis on Monday, was written in response to mass protests against police brutality. While the vast majority of protests remained peaceful, the law seeks to crack down on rioters.
The law brings new protections for police officers and puts “an end to the bullying and intimidation tactics of the radical left,” DeSantis said. It allows for an appeal if a municipality tries to reduce its police budget.
It also allows authorities to hold arrested protesters until a first court appearance — preventing them from immediately posting bail. It enhances the penalties for damaging property and other forms of violence during protests, and creates new crimes for “mob intimidation” and doxing.
Violators could now face up to 10 years in prison for damaging memorials or historic structures, such as Confederate monuments.
“Rights have limits, and violence is where the line is drawn,” said Republican Senator Danny Burgess, who carried the bill in the Senate. “This bill is about preventing violence.”
Many of the large-scale protests last year took place in Minnesota, Missouri, Washington, Colorado, Oregon, California, New York and Washington, D.C. Florida did not experience the violence seen in some other states at the time.
Nationwide protests over George Floyd’s death
Officials cited protests around the nation — but not the January 6 attack on the Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump — as DeSantis signed the bill. Republicans had previously used the insurrection as a reason to support the measure.
“If you riot, if you loot, if you harm others, particularly if you harm a law enforcement officer during one of these violent assemblies, you’re going to jail,” DeSantis said, surrounded by high-ranking state Republicans.
The law took effect immediately.
Opponents called the bill racist, saying that it seeks to fix a problem that doesn’t actually exist in Florida. State Senator Shevrin Jones said that DeSantis “declared war on the First Amendment in the state of Florida.”
“This legislation undermines every Floridian’s constitutional rights, and it is disgusting that the GOP would rather empower vigilantes and silence voice than listen to the majority of Floridians who oppose this dangerous bill,” Jones said in a statement. “The governor’s press conference spectacle was a distraction that will only further disenfranchise Black and Brown communities.”
State Senator Gary Farmer called the bill a “multi-pronged assault on the foundations of American democracy.” Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried echoed the sentiment, saying that the bill “protects no one.”
“HB 1 protects no one, makes no one safer, and does nothing to make people’s lives better,” Fried said in a
statement. “It’s simply to appease the Governor’s delusion of widespread lawlessness, and it’s frightening to imagine the lengths to which he’ll go to strip away rights and freedoms for political gain.”
“As a father trying to raise four young Black men in this state, HB 1 terrifies me,” State Rep. Bobby Dubose tweeted. “We know, from lifetimes of experience, who this will harm: communities of color.”
Minnesota prepares for Chauvin trial verdict
The American Civil Liberties Union said the new law would give police broad discretion over what constitutes a demonstration and a riot.
“The bill was purposely designed to embolden the disparate police treatment we have seen over and over again directed towards Black and brown people who are exercising their constitutional right to protest,” said Micah Kubic, the executive director of ACLU of Florida.
During the signing, DeSantis also criticized the Minnesota attorney general as closing arguments were taking place in the trial of Chuavin, a former Minneapolis police officer who held his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
“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.
Protests have reignited amid more recent deaths at the hands of police, including the fatal shooting of 20-year-old Daunte Wright, in suburban Minneapolis.