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State ‘Anti-Riot’ Bill: What’s Next For Organizers?

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Rachael Pongetti/Courtesy Photo
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Organizers who have led local protests in the past year say they are disappointed, but undeterred by House Bill 1, otherwise known as the anti-riot bill. 

“We’re never going to stop protesting,” said Haley Morrissette, North Florida regional organizer for Dream Defenders. “It’s the American way. We won’t stop taking to the streets to build people power.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law Monday. The bill was introduced last year as protests carried out throughout the state — and country — in response to the killing of George FloydDerek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis, Minnestota police officer charged with murder and manslaughter for causing Floyd’s death, was convicted Tuesday and is scheduled to be sentenced in June.

Morrissette and Jamil Davis, North Florida regional organizer of Black Voters Matter, have been vocal opponents of the bill, hosting rallies in Pensacola and Tallahassee to build awareness. 

Dream Defenders, a Miami-based organization created after the killing of Trayvon Martin, released a statement about the passage of HB1 saying “We will see DeSantis in court.” 

“This is all in direct response to the 26 million people who protested over the Summer of 2020, spurred by the police murder of George Floyd,” the release said. “In a time when Floridians need shelter, unemployment checks, COVID-19 vaccines and care, DeSantis is advancing legislation that will take Florida back to Jim Crow.” 

The bill cracks down on violent protests, increasing criminal penalties for those convicted of crimes during a riot, including assault and defacing monuments and public property. 

It also prohibits defunding of law enforcement agencies and 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.

Morrissette said the civil immunity provision gives motorists the “green light” to drive through protests. And she said it alludes to the protest at the Graffiti Bridge in which a protester was carried over the Pensacola Bay Bridge on the hood of an SUV

“These are actual people,” she said. “It’s heinous. It’s reminiscent of the horrible Stand Your Ground law.”  That law gives people the right to meet force with force, including deadly force, if that person reasonably believes the force is necessary.

While protests against police brutality in the past year have been some of the largest and most diverse, Davis said he believes HB1 could discourage people from exercising their First Amendment right.

“Some people will think, ‘Is it worth my freedom?’” he said. 

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Credit Jennie McKeon/WUWF Public Media
Jamil Davis speaks against House Bill 1 at a Pensacola rally.

For Davis, it’s no question. 

“I won’t stop. Absolutely not,” he said. “Even before HB1 was a blip in DeSantis’ brain, being an organizer around Black liberation, I’ve always known what the consequences were.”  

Casey Bruce-White, director of communications for the ACLU of Florida, said HB1 has a “chilling effect on the rights of Floridians to peacefully assemble.” 

“Every time a Floridian chooses to exercise their First Amendment right to peacefully assemble in public, due to HB1, they are at risk of being arrested and charged with a felony if a violent counter-protester or another person engages in violence even if they themselves did not engage in any violent and disorderly conduct,” she added. “Just being present at the protest where violence occurs would be enough for law enforcement, under HB1, to arrest them and charge them with a felony.” 

Bruce-White says the law is “extremely vague” and gives discretionary power to enforce it. Which is one of the concerns of Morrissette. 

“It leaves it up to officers to differentiate when they’re the ones we’re protesting,” she said. 

“People should know that under HB1, if another person or a violent counter-protester engages in violence or disorderly conduct at a protest, they themselves could be arrested and charged with a felony simply for being present at the protest,” added Bruce-White. “They should know that under HB1, if you are arrested, you could be held in law enforcement custody until a formal bail hearing. They should also know that people could be sent to prison for up to 15 years for pulling down a Confederate flag or other shrines to white supremacy. Finally, they should know the law also expressly endeavors to criminalize speech intended to change a person's viewpoint, ideas, or conduct.”

Bruce-White did not answer questions regarding what actions the ACLU may take against HB1 saying she couldn't comment on any future litigation. 

Even after the guilty verdict of Chauvin, the officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes, even with the threat of felony charges, the work of organizers is not done, said Davis. Just minutes before the verdict on Chauvin, Columbus, Ohio police shot and killed 15-year-old Ma'Khia Bryant.  

“There will be training and talking to legal experts,” said Davis. “As we go through this season of protest — Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo — these instances are still happening. These are real issues.”