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Protest Bill Becomes Law As Sheriff Warns 'We Will Use It If You Make Us'

 Officers from the St. Augustine Police Department stopped traffic along U.S. 1 as scores of Northeast Florida residents marched to protest the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota (June 1, 2020).
Will Brown
Used with permission
Officers from the St. Augustine Police Department stopped traffic along U.S. 1 as scores of Northeast Florida residents marched to protest the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota (June 1, 2020).

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has approved a bill he says will curb violence and property damage during protests. It’s a response to last summer’s protests following the death of George Floyd and calls to defund the police. DeSantis signed off on the measure Monday at a press conference in Polk County—the same place where he first introduced the proposal seven months ago.

DeSantis was flanked by local law enforcement, House Speaker Chris Sprowls, and Senate President Wilton Simpson—the same group who stood by him in September when he introduced his public disorder bill.

“We had a bold vision," DeSantis said during his press conference Monday. "We worked with President Wilton Simpson, and Speaker Chris Sprowls to get it done and we’re here today to sign this bill into law.”

The new law creates crimes such as mob intimidation, cyber intimidation and defacing monuments. It increases penalties for crimes that happen during protests—like attacks on police and property. It also creates civil fines for blocking roadways, and sets up a process to challenge local government decisions that result in decreased funding for law enforcement.

Polk Sheriff Grady Judd has backed the bill since its introduction. During the press conference he showed two photos—one depicting a crowd of people marching down a street carrying signs, the other, of a person in silhouette standing in front of a fire.

“I want to make sure everyone knows, this is a peaceful protest," Judd said of the image of people marching down a street. " We encourage it. It’s the foundation of our country. And we want people to peacefully protest when they feel the need.”

Of the second image, with the fire, Judd said, "this is a riot. And this will get you locked up before quick in the state of Florida. Pay attention. We’ve got a new law. And we will use it if you make us.”

Judd says law enforcement can tell the difference between a peaceful protest and a riot. Where Gov. DeSantis sees “unprecedented disorder and violence and mob activity,” Democratic Rep. Frentrice Driskoll sees potential first amendment problems, and confusion arising from the new law.

This language is very fuzzy. From committee stop to committee stop—we’d sometimes get different answers from the bill sponsor when we would ask questions about mob intimidation and what does that mean? Aggravated riot, and what does that mean, if you have people who are protesting peacefully and you have some other people begin engaging in wrongdoing at the same protest. How are law enforcement officers supposed to handle that? Because the language in HB1 leaves it open to interpretation.”

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried calls the law an effort to suppress dissenting voices.

“Laws are not applied equally," she said. "And when law enforcement has complete discretion as you saw during the insurrection at the capitol, you see how laws can be applied differently depending on your background and the color of your skin. And that’s my greatest fear, here.”

The signing of HB1 comes as lawmakers are considering a bill that would introduce police reforms, like requiring officers to disclose whether they’ve been the subject of investigations. Both are responses to the summer’s social justice movements.

Copyright 2021 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.