Gov. DeSantis moves to crack down on protesters considered unruly

Gov. Ron DeSantis announces initiative to increase penalties for 'disorderly' protests. Credit: Screenshot, Florida Channel

Following protests around the country over racial unrest and police brutality, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday said he will push legislation this coming spring to curb actions of protesters who are considered disorderly.

The bottom line: If someone is judged unruly they could face more criminal penalties than in the past.

The announcement follows months of protests throughout the country since the death of George Floyd in May, including cities such as Portland, Oregon, where demonstrations have been unending.

“You didn’t see the type of disorder here in the state of Florida that you did throughout many other parts in the country. But, I think we need to do more than what we’ve already done,” said DeSantis, flanked by sheriffs across Florida, plus other politicians who can push such legislation.

The upcoming Senate leader Wilton Simpson and the new House Speaker Chris Sprowls were at the news conference. They will be in leadership roles during the 2021 legislative session that opens in March. DeSantis said he needed to have a strong legislative response on the issue of tough penalties for violence at protests.

“Our number one priority in the State of Florida is to protect people’s lives, their communities, their neighborhoods, and their property,” said Sprowls.

The proposed legislation is entitled “Combating Violence, Disorder, and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act,” and looks to discourage “disorderly assembly” with stronger penalties for actions such as damaging properties, toppling monuments, or blocking traffic for an unpermitted protest.

The proposed legislation also says that drivers are “NOT liable for injury or death caused if fleeing for safety from a mob.”

DeSantis acknowledges that Florida has generally not had the kind of protests and violence that has erupted in other states. But the governor suggested that this kind of behavior could happen.

The move by DeSantis comes as voters go to the polls in November — and people can vote before that through mail-in ballots and early voting.

Civil rights groups and progressive lawmakers quickly raised concerns about DeSantis’ proposals.

The governor also said that Florida will not support localities to defund police, which has been a proposition to help reduce police brutality. The governor said localities would risk losing money if they move to defund local law enforcement.

“If you defund the police, then the state is going to defund any grants or aids coming to you,” DeSantis said.

A reporter at the press conference asked DeSantis what he meant by “defund the police” and if that refers to agencies that redirect funds from law enforcement to community programs.

“What this will be is, you know — if you have a tough budget year and you do cuts, it is what it is. But if you single out, disproportionately, reducing law enforcement or cutting back law enforcement funding — that’s when, that’s when this would detach,” DeSantis said. “But when you see what happened in Los Angeles or New York where they’re taking massive amounts of money, that is going to put the community at risk.”

The phrase “defund the police” is a suggestion that gained significant traction from the Black Lives Matter protests and similar movements. The intention stems from reallocating the increasing funds from police and law enforcement and instead moving money towards initiatives and projects that help boost local communities and provide better access to resources such as a quality education.

The sentiment of “defunding the police” also includes reallocating funds to support networks that can be used as resources instead of police during non-violent calls, according to supporters and news reports.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida sees the proposed legislation as a threat to First Amendment rights.

Micah W. Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. Credit: ACLU Kansas.

“This is not what democracy looks like” said Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, in a written statement following the announcement. Kubic said that the proposal “would deny fundamental due process to protesters by eliminating their right to bail.”

He continued: “Local governments and their residents have every right to reallocate their budget to reflect the needs and values of their communities. This proposed bill would punish local communities for addressing how best to use taxpayer dollars in their communities by divesting from overly funded police departments and investing resources back into other much-needed community resources and services.”

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat who represents part of Orange County and is running for reelection, clearly saw this as a political move.

“Let’s be clear of what this is — 100% an election stunt,” Eskamani tweeted in reaction to the press conference. “Just like the Governor’s attacks on immigrants, he constantly demonizes BIPOC (Black Indigenous and People of Color) to achieve an election agenda. When they can’t win on actual issues all they can do is distract and use black/brown people as the enemy.”

Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat who represents part of Broward County and is running for Florida Senate this year, is concerned that the proposed legislation threatening First Amendment rights of Floridians.

“.@GovRonDeSantis trying to block people from using their 1st amendment right to protest is a slap in the face to everyone fighting against injustice, especially black people. It’s wrong and it’s unconstitutional,” Jones tweeted Monday.

During the press conference, DeSantis made a point to inform candidates in the upcoming election that they need to pick a side.

“I think it’s important that every person running for office this year — whether you’re running for the House, whether you’re running for the Senate — you have an obligation to let the voters know where you stand on this (proposed) bill,” he said. “Are you going to stand with victims, are you going to stand with law enforcement, are you going to stand for Law and Order and communities — or, are you going to stand with the mob?”

Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University, majoring in English with a focus in editing, writing, and media. While at FSU, she served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine, Nomadic Noles. Last fall, she fulfilled another editorial internship with Rowland Publishing, where she wrote for the Tallahassee Magazine, Emerald Coast Magazine, and 850 Business Magazine. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat. She spends her downtime traveling to all corners of Florida and beyond to practice lindy hop.