It’s been a long time coming. Governor Ron DeSantis signed the Combating Public Disorder Act into law, today, a law that was drafted on January 7th, 2021, in the wake of the Capitol riots in Washington D.C as Governor DeSantis denounced the events at the Capitol.
But the birth of the idea began long before that, in the late summer of 2020, as America faced nationwide protests in the wake of the alleged murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. And now, the threat of more protests looms overhead.
After a wave of protests swept the country, and some of those protests turned violent, notably in Minneapolis, Seattle, and Portland, DeSantis began speaking out about the need for stiffer penalties for protests that turn violent.
The Governor has carefully walked the tightrope, here, a fine line where he both supports the right to peacefully protest, at least verbally, and stiffens the penalties severely for protestors who engage in violent behavior. Any violence conducted during a protest will now be a 2nd-degree felony under the law.
Several other states have introduced similar pieces of legislation in the wake of Governor DeSantis’ proposals that have echoed over the past six months.
In a press conference today, Governor DeSantis said:
“We saw really unprecedented rioting and disorder throughout the summer of 2020, and we said that’s not going to happen here in the state of Florida. And we wanted to make sure that we were able to protect the people of our great state, people’s business, and property against any top of mob activity or violent assemblies.”
The law is destined to be controversial, with some activist groups pushing back stating that it’s a clear example of state overreach that’s going to be used to harm minorities and other vulnerable communities.
Activists also fear the law will be misused to aggressively police those communities, likening it to something out of the old Jim Crow South.
But what exactly is it that’s so controversial?
- Criminalizes using or threatening force or violence against someone else during a protest.
- Allows businesses and property owners to sue local municipalities if they fail to provide adequate policing for such a situation.
- Criminalizes defacing property, including flags, and notably, criminalizes defacing historical structures, statues, or monuments.
- It allows the State of Florida to punish local governments who attempt to defund police departments.
- Disallows bail for people arrested for violently protesting until their first court appearance.
- Authorizes felony charges for those caught being violent at a protest.
Beyond all of this, the law also provides civil immunity for people who run over protestors, so long as the protestors have blocked off the streets.
Or, as the law says, it’s, “creating an affirmative defense to a civil action where the plaintiff participated in a riot or unlawful assembly.” Business Insider didn’t mince words when they summed it up, saying that the “anti-riot bill that grants civil immunity to drivers who hit protesters and protects police budgets from being cut.”
This is the part that’s presumably going to raise the most eyebrows. One instantly conjures up mental images of Grand Theft Auto video games.
What could possibly go wrong?
Fortunately, the law is much more mundane than that. It only provides civil legal cover for drivers if the streets are entirely blocked off by rioters engaging in violence. It basically means that people in vehicles can no longer be held liable if they run over someone who’s engaging in an act of violent protest while in the streets.
But still, this is certainly enough to make some heads spin.
Proponents of the law, on the other hand, believe the law will keep protests like the ones that rocked the rest of the country last year out of Florida. DeSantis himself has also explicitly stated he supports the right to peacefully protest, reiterating that the rights of peaceful assembly and free speech are enshrined in our constitution, but that these rights do not extend to include violent behavior towards others.
Time will tell how Floridians will respond to this. But one thing sure of, there will certainly be legal challenges to the new law.
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