On Thursday, Florida Senate approved an “anti-riot” bill championed by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, sending it to him for signature into law over the objections of Democrats and civil rights groups who say the measure infringes on the fundamental First Amendment right to protest.
Moreover, the parts of the bill (HB 1 ) that most upset Democrats grant civil legal immunity to people who drive through protesters blocking a road; prevent people arrested for rioting or offenses committed during a riot from bailing out of jail until their first court appearance; and impose a six-month mandatory sentence for battery on a police officer during a riot.
Governor Ron DeSantis, when he unveiled the proposal, emphasized the need to prevent bail for rioters, so they aren’t able to rejoin the unrest. During an emotional debate, Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, called the bill a “mail piece for reelection for a specific base who wants it. … We have to [instead] pass legislation for all Floridians.”
Senator Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, who read the First Amendment on the Senate floor, added, “We know the governor wants this piece of legislation. We don’t have to do everything the governor wants.”
However Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said the bill wasn’t about politics, race or peaceful protests. Instead, it was meant to prevent riots that hurt or kill people and destroy property, she said.
“This bill is about preventing violence,” said Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, sponsor of the Senate version of the measure.
Burgess and his fellow Republicans fended off 16 amendments from Democrats in a Wednesday session as they attempted to water down the bill. Burgess was questioned by Senator Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, about whether James Fields, a white supremacist who killed Heather Heyer during protests at Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, would have been granted civil immunity for her death under the bill.
Burgess noted the bill wouldn’t prevent criminal charges and the provision would only apply to people defending themselves from protesters, not those deliberately targeting them. Fields was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison in 2019.
“That person rammed a vehicle into those people to hurt them … he wasn’t defending himself,” Burgess said. “That is in no way protected in this bill.”
The bill passed House 76-39 with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed on March 26. It will become effective immediately when DeSantis signs it, which he said Thursday he would do.
Governor Ron DeSantis began to push for an anti-riot bill in September, in response to the protests against police bias and brutality that took place throughout the country last summer, some of which turned violent, with rioting and looting. The protests were sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by Minneapolis police.
One of the officers charged in the killing, Derek Chauvin, shown in a video kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes, is currently on trial. Chauvin has a second home in Windermere.
During a conference call with reporters, Black Voters Matter co-founder and executive director Cliff Albright said the legislation is a backlash against the passion expressed by young people in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.
“And in response to that, for the state to say, we’re going to criminalize your activity. We’re going to criminalize your passion. We’re going to criminalize your protest. That’s not what democracy looks like,” Albright said.
Much of the bill addresses the reaction of protesters and rioters in the wake of the Floyd killing. The “defund the police” slogan of some protesters led to a provision of the bill requiring municipal budget plans that would cut police budgets to be approved by the state.
Cities and counties would also be civilly liable for damages caused during a riot if they don’t restrain police from quelling the disturbance.
A new crime of “mob intimidation,” defined as three or more people “acting with a common intent” forcing or threatening to force another person from taking a viewpoint against their will, is created by the bill. It is punishable as a first-degree misdemeanor, and bail is denied until the first court appearance for anyone charged with the crime.
That provision is in response to videos last summer of protestors of police violence menacing people eating at outdoor restaurants.
Memorials, statutes, and historic property, including Confederate monuments, a target of some protesters last year, would be protected under the bill since it would require restitution for repairs. The bill also increases penalties for assault, battery, burglary, and theft during a riot.
After the vote, Farmer and several other Democratic senators donned black shirts to mourn what they called the death of the First Amendment.