We’re still reeling from the Jan. 6 riots, when a mob of President Trump’s supporters overran the Capitol Building. This week, there’s anxiety over possible riots during Wednesday’s presidential inauguration. But is a proposed anti-mob bill, pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, needed? Civil rights activists, Democrat lawmakers and defense attorneys warn it's overreach and an assault on civil liberties.
DeSantis first drafted the bill back in September as a reaction to the nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck. The proposed legislation stalled; then, the morning after the Capitol riots, DeSantis, who was in Manatee County to visit a Covid-19 vaccination site, told reporters, “It doesn’t matter what banner you’re flying under. The violence is wrong. We’re not going to tolerate it in Florida. I hope maybe now we’ll get even more support for my legislation because it’s something that needs to be done.”
The next day, Jan. 8, Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin, a Miami-Dade Republican, filed HB 1, and Sen. Danny Burgess, a Zephyrhills Republican, filed SB 436. The proposed legislation is known as the “Combatting Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act.”
The bill elevates penalties for participants in demonstrations deemed to have become “disorderly,” including damaging historical monuments (a connection to the removal of Confederate monuments during the summer protests), vandalism and looting. Another provision of the bill allows for law enforcement to declare groups of three or more people “a riot.”
Opponents are quick to point out that these acts are already illegal. “Section 870 Florida Statute already criminalizes affrays, riots, unlawful assemblies and routs,” according to a statement by the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (FACDL), which opposes the legislation as “a too broad attack on the First Amendment and the right to assemble.”
The bill creates a legal defense for motorists who strike protestors with their vehicle, even if the incident results in someone’s death. It also threatens to punish cities and municipalities who consider defunding local police.
People who have been convicted under the proposed legislation and finished their sentences are prohibited from seeking reemployment assistance. It also allows victims of crimes to recover civil damages from a local government deemed to have been grossly negligent in policing a riot, according to FACDL.
Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, put out a statement condemning the bill. “This is not an attempt to make our communities safer,” the statement read. "This proposed legislation by DeSantis was nothing more than a campaign political stunt. Now, it is being disguised as a response to the failed violent coup at the U.S. Capitol. And, it is just as unconstitutional.”
The ACLU sees the contents of the bill as no coincidence. “We’re old enough to remember this bill was proposed as a direct political response to last year’s nationwide protests calling for an end to racialized violence and police brutality that disparately harms Black people,” Kubich said.
Might there be bipartisan support for the bill in the wake of the Capitol riots? In the immediate wake of 9/11, the Bush Administration passed the Patriot Act, which resulted in a major expansion of government surveillance, with bipartisan support, including a vote from current Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
“I’m not concerned about the bipartisan support part,” says Donna Davis, co-founder of Black Lives Matter: Tampa. “Any good Democrat knows that this is a Trojan horse. Any law that they have on the books, I’m going to find myself a victim of. Who is going to suffer when they pass laws that oppress our civil liberties? Not the people who rioted in Washington. It’ll be people like me.”
So far, the bill appears divided along party lines. Rep. Will Robinson, R-71, said he had not read the bill in its entirety, but “so long as the bill doesn’t stop peaceful protests, and that’s what the governor said was the intent of the bill, I would support it.” Robinson noted that while some of the nation’s Black Lives Matter protests were violent, all the protests in his area were peaceful. “They may have blocked some streets a little bit, a minor disruption…but they were a valid exercise.”
Rep. Jim Boyd, R-71, also supports the bill. In an emailed statement to the magazine, he wrote, “I support the right to assemble and the right to peacefully protest, Senate Bill 484 does not inhibit one’s ability to do either. This legislation will bolster protections for the men and women of law enforcement who protect our communities every day while also helping to prevent a peaceful protest from becoming violent.”
Michele Rayner, D-70, the lone Democrat in the region, does not support the bill. “Since its initial proposal in response to the protests against bigotry and injustice around the county, I continue to oppose this bill. The intention of this legislation has always been to penalize those who were organizing and protesting for an end to state violence. This is doublespeak we are hearing from Republican leadership about accountability for the treasonous acts in our nation’s Capitol. The gravity of these crimes committed this past week far exceeds this debate on protesting. It is unfortunate that Governor DeSantis is using this premeditated intentional act of violence on the U.S. government to mislead people into supporting this bill.”
Newly elected senators James Buchanan and Fiona McFarland, who won Margaret Good’s former seat, both Republicans, did not respond to repeated requests.
For now, the bill has a good chance of passing with a Republican majority in Florida’s House and Senate. The Reverend Dr. Russell L Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, believes that what the governor is proposing is a prohibition of liberty.
“The Bible says the job of the ruler is to defend the poor and crush the oppressor,” he said. “This bill defends the oppressor and crushes the poor. I don’t call it an anti-mob or anti-protestor bill. It’s an anti-liberty bill.”