Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Florida’s “anti-riot” bill into law Monday, a measure that vastly increases law enforcement’s powers to crack down on civil unrest.
The bill, pushed by the Republican governor, has been criticized by Democrats and civil rights groups as unconstitutional for infringing on the First Amendment’s right to peacefully protest.
“If you look at the breadth of this particular piece of legislation, it is the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country,” DeSantis said at a news conference in Winter Haven surrounded by Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, uniformed deputies and other law enforcement. “There’s just nothing even close.”
DeSantis also hinted that Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, who he said last year had murdered George Floyd, might be acquitted and that the state was “prepared.”
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” DeSantis said. “But I can tell you that case was bungled by the attorney general there in Minnesota. They didn’t handle it properly. And so there may be people disappointed.”
Speakers including the governor said the law would protect law enforcement and private property against rioters, despite acknowledging there was little violent unrest in Florida during last year’s protests over Floyd’s deaths.
But opponents say it would make it easier for law enforcement to charge organizers and anyone involved in a protest, even if they had not engaged in any violence.
“The problem with this bill is that the language is so overbroad and vague … that it captures anybody who is peacefully protesting at a protest that turns violent through no fault of their own,” said Kara Gross, the legislative director at ACLU Florida. “Those individuals who do not engage in any violent conduct under this bill can be arrested and charged with a third-degree felony and face up to five years in prison and loss of voting rights. The whole point of this is to instill fear in Floridians.”
Democratic state Sen. Shevrin Jones, a West Park Democrat, who is Black, said the new law “undermines every Floridian’s constitutional rights, and it is disgusting that the GOP would rather empower vigilantes and silence voices than listen to the majority of Floridians who oppose this dangerous bill. The governor’s spectacle is a distraction that will only further disenfranchise Black and brown communities.”
The law, which goes into effect immediately, grants civil legal immunity to people who drive through protesters blocking a road, which Democrats argued might have protected the white nationalist who ran over and killed counterprotester Heather Heyer during the Charlottesville, Virginia, tumult in 2017. It also makes blocking a highway a felony offense.
“Just think about it, you’re driving home from work, and all of a sudden, you have people out there shutting down a highway, and we worked hard to make sure that didn’t happen in Florida,” DeSantis said. “They start to do that, (then) there needs to be swift penalties.”
The law also creates a broad category for misdemeanor arrest during protests, and anyone charged under that provision will be denied bail until their first court appearance. DeSantis said he wanted that to prevent people from rejoining ongoing protests.
It creates a new felony crime of “aggravated rioting” that carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison and a new crime of “mob intimidation.”
The measure also protects Confederate monuments along with other memorials, statues and historic property.
“We also saw around the country people toppling monuments of people like George Washington,” DeSantis said. “This bill protects all monuments in Florida. You have no right to go in and take down monuments, we’re not going to let the mob win the day with that.”
Echoing DeSantis, Republican state House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Attorney General Ashley Moody vilified other states and cities for their handling of the protests last year, some of which did turn violent.
State CFO Jimmy Patronis claimed that Portland, New York and Seattle “burned to the ground” last summer.
At one point, Judd held up a photo of Black families at the beach and at Walt Disney World, saying law enforcement would help “guarantee an environment where you can come here and have fun.” There were no African Americans on stage for the bill signing.
But despite saying he welcomed people moving to Florida, Judd warned, “don’t register to vote and vote the stupid way they did up north and get what they got.”
The vast majority of citations and charges against protesters last year were ultimately dropped, dismissed or otherwise not filed, according to an analysis by The Guardian newspaper.
In Orlando, 80 of about 100 arrests on charges of disorderly conduct during the first week of Floyd protests last year were ultimately dropped.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a potential Democratic challenger to DeSantis’ reelection in 2022, said the law “helps no one.”
“It’s simply to appease the governor’s delusion of widespread lawlessness,” Fried said. “The message is clear: if you disagree with him, you will be silenced.”
DeSantis did not take questions after he signed the bill.