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House Moves Forward On Violent Protest Crackdown

Jennie McKeon/WUWF Public Media

Republican lawmakers are pushing ahead with a controversial proposal that seeks to crack down on violent protests, make it more difficult for local governments to trim spending on law enforcement and enhance penalties related to riots and injuries to police officers.

Gov. Ron DeSantis first sketched out the law-and-order plan last year, following widespread protests throughout the country over racial inequities in policing and other aspects of American life.

Florida largely escaped the scenes of looting and torched buildings that occurred in such cities as Minneapolis and Portland. But DeSantis, an acolyte of former President Donald Trump, contends that Florida should enact harsh penalties for violent protests to ensure the safety of citizens and tourists.

Critics, however, maintain that proposals released by the House and Senate carrying out DeSantis’ plan would have a chilling effect on participation in peaceful protests, violate free-speech rights and allow people who plow vehicles into crowded protests to avoid civil penalties if they injure or kill someone.

The Republican-controlled House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee signed off Wednesday on the House proposal (HB 1) in a party-line vote, after hearing from dozens of people who condemned the measure.

The legislation is “racially and politically motivated,” Victoria Paul, political education chair of Florida State University’s Black Student Union, told the panel.

“As history has shown, Black people will pay the price,” she said in comments that were echoed by many of the other speakers.

The proposal would also allow citizens to challenge reductions in local law-enforcement budgets and give the governor and Cabinet the authority to overturn such reductions.

Democrats on the House panel, which oversees criminal justice spending, noted that a bill analysis found the proposal would increase prison costs at a time when lawmakers are trying to find ways to trim the state budget.

Rep. Christopher Benjamin, a Miami Gardens Democrat who is Black, said the proposal’s potential costs are too high.

“It will cause a financial burden and it will cause a social burden,” Benjamin, a lawyer, said.

Benjamin pointed out that civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. called riots “the language of the unheard.”

“And he said that social justice and progress are the only guarantors against riots. We need to focus on social justice and progress, because in them is the answer to riots, not HB 1,” he said.

Rep. Michael Grieco, a Miami Beach Democrat who is a criminal defense lawyer, argued that the enhanced penalties and new crimes in the “oppressive measure” would not prevent wrongdoing.

“Never once has any one of my clients, guilty or innocent ever said, ‘I’m not going to commit that crime or I’m going to commit that crime,’thinking about the penalty,” Grieco, who has been a lawyer for 29 years, said. “These enhanced penalties are not going to deter anyone at any point in time, if they feel their civil liberties are being violated.”

House bill sponsor Juan Alfonso Fernandez-Barquin, a Miami-Dade County Republican,  acknowledged that the measure could cost taxpayers money.

“The first responsibility of government is to make sure our residents are safe. The fiscal impact is not lost on me,” he said. “But if you behave lawfully and peacefully, you have nothing to worry about. But if you participate in violence or commit a crime, you must pay the penalty, even if it’s a burden on the law-abiding taxpaying residents.”

Fernandez-Barquin said a Florida Department of Law Enforcement analysis showed that 72 people were arrested in riot-related incidents last year. One person was convicted, and adjudication was withheld in two other cases, he said. In 2019, there were 14 arrests and three convictions, according to FDLE.

More than 100 protesters gathered peacefully outside of the Florida Capitol on Tuesday in opposition to the bill. 

But DeSantis and GOP legislative leaders point to the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 as proof that the crackdown is necessary.

The importance of the House measure, which faces one more committee before heading to the House floor for a full vote, is reflected by its demarcation as HB 1.

In his State of the State speech marking the legislative session’s opening, DeSantis noted that he activated National Guard troops to work with state and local law enforcement to protect Miami and Jacksonville last year.

“Florida handled it well. But we need to do more,” DeSantis said Tuesday, adding that the Florida legislation is the strongest in the country. “We will not permit localities to jeopardize the safety of their citizens by indulging in the insane fantasy of defunding law enforcement. We will not allow our cities to burn and violence to rule the streets. And we will not leave any doubt in the minds of those who wear the uniform that the state of Florida stands with you.”