Following months of racial unrest marked by nationwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations and scattered riots, Gov. Ron DeSantis may or may not be calling for a special legislative session to ward off “violence, disorder and looting” in Florida.
He may or may not intend to suppress demonstrations by making it too risky to participate in them.
And the governor may or may not be posturing to play to the pro-Trump electorate that prevailed in Florida.
It’s hard to tell, as signals from the governor’s office create confusion and even alarm for Democratic lawmakers and civil rights advocates who question DeSantis’ motive for making mob control his opening salvo for the approaching 2021 legislative session.
“This climate has gone very dark,” state Rep. Bobby DuBose, co-chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said in an interview with the Phoenix.
“This is incredibly frightening and it’s a blatant attempt to silence dissent,” said Kara Gross, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. “In response to Black Lives Matter, it’s basically saying, ‘I don’t want to hear from you.'”
What started as a news conference in September is now a morass.
This much we know:
Sept. 21: DeSantis, flanked by then-Senate President-designate Wilton Simpson, House Speaker-designate Chris Sprowls, and law-enforcement representatives, announced during a press conference a proposal that DeSantis called the “Combating Violence, Disorder, Looting, and Law Enforcement Protection Act.” The governor acknowledged rioting had not been an issue for Florida.
Based on an information sheet distributed at the time, it aimed to crack down on participation in any gathering that results in property damage, personal injury, toppling of monuments, or striking of a law enforcement officer.
It would prohibit demonstrations in the street without a permit and would shield from liability any motorist who unintentionally runs over and even kills a protester blocking traffic. It would ban local efforts to “defund the police” and deny bail or bond for anyone arrested in connection with a disorderly assembly.
“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,” the governor said at the time.
Election Day at the time was still six weeks away and DeSantis was campaigning for President Trump, who had made “law and order” a campaign plank and endorsed all of the above.
Sept. 23: Two days after the press conference, attorney Andrew King in the governor’s Office of Policy and Budget produced draft legislation fleshing out the proposal. It added significant details, including one that caused shock waves when it came to light following a public-records fight mounted by the Miami Herald:
The draft would expand Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” statute, Florida Statutes Section 776, to add looting, arson, and “criminal mischief” to the list of reasons a gunman could kill a person he or she thought to be doing those things.
Nov. 10: The Herald’s reporting on the draft legislation went national, prompting strong reactions to the notion of authorizing vigilantes to kill suspected looters or vandals on sight. Civil rights advocates expressed outrage.
Nov. 12: Sen. Randolph Bracy issued a written statement condemning DeSantis’ proposal as revealed. Bracy and Rep. Anna Eskamani, both Democrats, called it a political play for voters more interested in “law and order” than in racial justice. DeSantis is up for re-election in 2022 and is discussed as a potential presidential candidate.
“The sea of peaceful protests and impassioned marches represent real and genuine frustrations with the endless failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system,” Bracy said.
“Florida has not seen any large-scale clashes … yet Gov. Ron DeSantis recently proposed ‘anti-mob’ legislation that would expand Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law. It’s a move that puts people in harm’s way and could result in greater use of deadly force.”
Nov. 20: Politico reported that DeSantis, in a Republican executive committee conference call on Nov. 19, pitched his anti-mob proposal to scores of Republicans and called for a special session to get it passed into law.
Dec. 1: Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell ran a column condemning DeSantis’ plan as dangerous, unnecessary, and a brutal attack on the right to peacefully demonstrate — especially the part legalizing killing someone for presumed criminal mischief.
“That column posted at 8:20 a.m. Three hours later, a spokesman for DeSantis — who had previously offered no comment — said the governor had rethought this idea,” Maxwell reported.
Dec. 3: However, on Thursday, DeSantis communications director Fred Piccolo told the Phoenix that DeSantis never endorsed an expansion of “stand your ground” to include killing a person for presumed looting or criminal mischief.
“It was just an initial pass by staff, putting things together. The governor, when he first saw the ‘stand your ground provision,’ he removed it,” Piccolo said.
He did not clarify how the draft including the provision went beyond the governor’s office, and he did not supply any updated draft of DeSantis’ legislation showing the provision deleted.
As for a special session? Piccolo said he was not aware of any effort to convene one. The Legislature gathers for its regular session on March 2.
“It’s not been something that’s been discussed that I have heard of,” Piccolo said.
Asked why the governor was pressing for a clamp down now, instead of — say — reform of Florida’s broken unemployment system, Piccolo essentially said that the governor can multi-task.
“His contention would be that we can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can do both. I don’t think an unemployment fix is going to be such a massive lift that it would preclude him from doing other things.”
Critics chime in
As for the thrust of DeSantis’ proposed crackdown, Gross, of the ACLU, said Florida citizens should remember “there is no shortage of rules to control violence” that do not simultaneously put demonstrators in harm’s way for exercising their constitutional right to assembly.
Rep. DuBose, who counts himself an ally of local law enforcement, said there are many useful ways in which the governor and lawmakers could address racial justice, law and order, and respect for life and property, but that the governor appears less concerned about public policy than fear-mongering.
“Trump took this to a whole new level by scaring people,” DuBose said. “It’s a winning formula in Florida. It’s their new red meat.”
DuBose hopes DeSantis and Republicans in charge of the House and Senate aren’t intent on pushing the proposal. There’s not much evidence of a serious campaign, with no legislator yet stepping up to sponsor the governor’s plan and no formal call for a special session.
“I don’t know if a bill sponsor has been determined yet,” Piccolo told the Phoenix.
Sprowls, in his first speech as Speaker of the House, on Nov. 17, addressed law and order and pledged that no Florida city would be allowed to defund the police.
However, he promised to keep an open door and an open mind about reforming law enforcement to address police brutality that brought racial tension to a boiling point last year.
Senate President Simpson did not address the matter at all during his first speech, which DuBose considers significant.
“Someone will be crazy enough to file this stuff, but there’s a reason why Wilt didn’t talk about it,” DuBose said.
Meanwhile, a better response to the Black Lives Matter protests would be thoughtful reform of police training, banning controversial arrest practices like the ones that killed George Floyd and Eric Garner, criminal justice reform, and addressing coronavirus and unemployment that have disproportionately hurt minorities, DuBose said.
“Black Lives Matter is not this new thing that just came up,” he said. “This goes back a long way. Martin Luther King, he was saying black lives matter, too.”
The feds, sheriffs and police
U.S. Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz agreed in a report and a letter to Attorney General William Barr that states should focus on police reform, not criminalizing protests.
“One of the most pressing challenges facing the Department of Justice in the wake of nationwide protests following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among other incidents, is how it can most effectively work to strengthen public confidence in law enforcement and protect individuals’ civil liberties.
“This is not a new challenge for the department,” the report continues. “The [Office of Inspector General]’s 2015 Top Management and Performance Challenges report identified building trust and improving police community relations as among the most pressing challenges for the department after police killings of unarmed African Americans in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland. Community trust and cooperation are essential to effective policing.
“Recent tragic confrontations between police and private citizens — and resulting protests and civil unrest — have brought to the fore a public concern that Black people receive disparate treatment at the hands of law enforcement.
“A 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that ‘majorities of both black and white Americans say blacks are treated less fairly than whites in dealing with police and by the criminal justice system as a whole’ and that ‘black adults are about five times as likely as whites to say they’ve been unfairly stopped by police because of their race or ethnicity.’”
The Florida Police Chiefs Association expressed support for DeSantis’ goal without commenting on its details. The Florida Sheriffs Association declined to comment on the governor’s proposal and instead pointed the Phoenix to a column written by Lawrence Keefe, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Florida, which appeared in Florida Politics.
Keefe calls for certification of law enforcement agencies to include training on use of force, training in de-escalation, barring the use of “chokeholds” that have killed suspects including George Floyd in May, requiring officers to intervene to prevent use of excessive force by other officers, forbidding shooting at or from a moving vehicle, and establishing programs to identify officers at risk of using excessive force.