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Florida 'Anti-Riot' Law Signed Amid Controversy

Governor’s office

Flanked by uniformed law-enforcement officers in Winter Haven, Gov. Ron DeSantis Monday signed into law a controversial law-and-order measure — sparked by nationwide protests that erupted last year after George Floyd’s death.

House Bill-1 took effect immediately, on the same day as closing arguments in the Derek Chauvin trial got underway in Minneapolis.

“We saw, really unpresented disorder and rioting throughout the summer of 2020, and we said that’s not going to happen here in the state of Florida.”

Among other things, the new law cracks down on violent protests, and increases criminal penalties for those convicted of crimes during a riot, including assault and defacing monuments and public property.

“I think it’s really remarkable, 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,” said DeSantis. “And there nothing even close.”

Part of the bill prohibits the defunding of law enforcement agencies, an issue which appears to be non-existent in the Sunshine State.

“If a local government were to do that, that would be catastrophic and have terrible consequences for their citizens,” the governor said. “So this bill actually prevents against local government defunding law enforcement. We’ll be able to stop it at the state level.”

Another provision opens the door for lawsuits against local governments, if they fail to prevent a riot from breaking out.

“As we saw last summer, some of the local governments – not necessarily in Florida but throughout the country – telling police to stand down while cities burned – while businesses were burned, while people were being harmed,” DeSantis claimed. “That’s a dereliction of duty.”

It also gives civil immunity to those who drive into protesters who have blocked roads, and refuses bail for those charged in relation to a riot until after their first court appearance.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat, says the law gives too much leeway to law-enforcement officers to decide whether to arrest peaceful protesters.

“Based on the severity of this situation, and since it is going to curtail the First Amendment and our right to freedom of speech,” said Fried. “I have no doubt there will be lawsuits that will be filed.”

During his weekly news conference at City Hall, Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson was asked what HB-1 could mean to the city.

“We’ll figure all that out as we go forward,” Robinson said with a chuckle and some sarcasm. “And soon we’ll get all of our decisions from Tallahassee and we won’t run anything [from] here anymore. We’ll figure out where we go from there and we’ll look for them to tell us what to do.”

The mayor was also asked about any special preparations by the city, when the verdict is delivered in the Chauvin trial. He says for now, last week’s mass shooting at Oakwood Terrace – injuring six people – has garnered more attention.

“Our police department has been engaged full-force since that time in working; that was something that was very serious to us; and we’re very concerned,” said the mayor. “When we’ve usually had these shootings we tend to have another one, because they just don’t seem to stop – one side wants to keep shooting the other.”

HB-1 is drawing fire from opponents who contend it’s unconstitutional, and aims to stop protests altogether, such as those involving Black Lives Matter. Cara Gross is with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

“As we have seen from this, [DeSantis’] number-one priority is to create a police state and to exercise this authoritarianism,” Gross said. “He had said back in September that this was his number-1 priority.”

That was before the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, during the wake of the protests against George Floyd’s death. The bill, she says, was pushed through by DeSantis with disregard for the normal legislative process, and out of the public eye.

“The bill was assigned to three senate committees, and it was not heard in any of those,” contends Gross. “Normally, that would mean that the bill had been stalled. But instead, they took the bill out of those committees, and then they assigned it to just one committee – appropriations. And then they had it be heard directly on the floor after that.”

It’s too early to say for sure if there will be a court challenge of HB-1. Gross wants everyone to understand that this new law appears to be a solution in search of a problem.

“It is already a felony under Florida’s current existing criminal laws to engage in riotous behavior; to engage in violence or property damage or the destruction of monuments,” said Gross. “What was not covered was the fact that you could be arrested for not engaging in any violent conduct. And that’s what this bill does.”

Black Democrats in particular have lashed out at the measure, which they say is rooted in racism and is evocative of Jim Crow-era laws targeting African-Americans.