As of Monday in Florida, a gathering of three or more people can be labeled a “riot”—and if they’re blocking the road and you feel frightened, it’s generally OK to run them over with a car. Historic monuments, however—Confederate and otherwise—receive special protection under the law.
These are just some of the stipulations created by Florida’s new controversial anti-protest bill, which Gov. Ron DeSantis, flanked by law enforcement officers at the Polk County Sheriff's Office, signed into law on Monday.
“It’s the strongest anti-rioting pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country. There’s nothing even close,” DeSantis said at a press conference. “We’re not going to end up like Portland.”
The “Combatting Public Disorder Bill,” or HB1, is the latest attempt to crack down on First Amendment activity in the wake of the nationwide protest movement that was triggered by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Florida’s bill, as with those introduced in 45 states this year, has been widely criticized by civil liberties groups who fear that the law will be used disproportionately to criminalize Black-led protests against police brutality and racial injustice.
Floyd’s death also sparked a conversation about the limitations of police reform, and galvanized the “Defund the Police” movement.
DeSantis made shutting that conversation down a centerpiece of his legislative agenda.
The bill intends to prevent local governments from taking steps to defund law enforcement by making them liable for any damage that occurs during a protest.
“Obviously in the state of Florida, we’re not going to do that under my leadership, but if the local government were to do that, that would be catastrophic and have terrible consequences for their citizens, and so this bill actually prevents local governments from defunding law enforcement,” DeSantis said.
He added that local officials could also be held liable if damage occurred after they gave “stand down” orders to police. “That’s a dereliction of duty,” DeSantis said.
Florida’s new law also creates civil immunity for people who drive into crowds of protesters, meaning they won’t be sued for damages if people get hurt or killed if they claim self-defense (but they could still face criminal charges). Democrats asked their GOP colleagues whether the neo-Nazi who drove into a crowd of protesters during the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville could have claimed immunity or self-defense. “That person rammed a vehicle into those people to hurt them,” GOP state Sen. Danny Burgess responded, according to the Orlando Sentinel. “He wasn’t defending himself.”
This comes after an alarming surge of vehicle-ramming attacks against protesters across the country. Between May and October 2020, there were over 100 incidents of drivers going into crowds of protesters—about half of which were confirmed to be intentional, according to research by Ari Weil, a terrorism researcher at the University of Chicago's Chicago Project on Security and Threats.
At least eight of those incidents took place in Florida. For example, a man drove his car into a small group of protesters near downtown Gainesville and pointed a gun at them last May. In a separate incident in Tallahassee, a man accelerated his pick-up truck into a group of protesters.
“We also have penalties for people who commandeer highways,” said DeSantis. “You’re driving home from work and all the sudden you have people out there shutting down a highway. There needs to be swift penalties, that just cannot be something that can happen.”
At least five other states, including Iowa, Missouri, Nevada, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Washington are considering similar bills which would extend some degree of liability to individuals who drive through protesters. Oklahoma’s bill goes further than Florida’s new law, by proposing immunity for criminal charges for people who drive into protesters.
Florida’s HB1, which received strong GOP backing and passed the Republican-led Senate on Thursday with a 23-17, also ramps up penalties against protest participants. Anyone who “willingly participated” in a “riot”—now defined as a protest involving three or more people—could be charged with a third-degree felony, which is punishable by up to five years in prison.
It also makes “mob intimidation”—defined as two or more people trying to compel someone to “assume, abandon, or maintain a particular viewpoint against his or her will”—a misdemeanor.
“People sitting outside eating outside a restaurant and you see this crazed mob circle around them and start screaming and really intimidating them,” said DeSantis. “I'm sorry that's not acceptable. I'm sorry you’re going to be held accountable, mind your own business.”
The bill also prevents people arrested for protest-related offenses from being bailed out of jail until their first court appearance.
Unsurprisingly, the bill has not been received well by Florida’s protest community—or by Democrat-leaning local governments. “For me as an organizer, I don’t want anyone to get a felony,” activist Jalessa Blackshear told the Tampa Bay Times during a protest in nearby St Petersburgh over the weekend. “I don’t want anyone to go to jail.”
“This bill is a direct effort to silence the Movement for Black Lives and the uprisings last summer following the police killing of George Floyd,” said Gainesville Commissioner Gail Johnson in a statement from Local Progress, a network of progressive-minded elected officials. “It keeps no one safe, and undercuts our liberty.”
Meanwhile, lawmakers elsewhere are also seeking extreme solutions to curb protest activity in their states.
In Minnesota, which is again the epicenter for protests against racial injustice following the death of Duante Wright, a Black man, at the hands of a white police officer, a Republican lawmaker has introduced a bill that would withhold student financial assistance from anyone who was convicted of a protest-related crime.The bill also proposes withholding other types of state-funded aid, including food stamps, rent assistance and unemployment benefits.