Proposed protest bill poses danger to Floridians

Rowan O'Flanagan, Staffer

A new piece of legislation proposed by Governor Ron Desantis in response to last summer’s wave of racial justice protests, called the “Combating Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act,” is a dangerous abuse of power. 

One particularly concerning provision is an assertion that a “Driver is NOT liable for injury or death caused if fleeing for safety from a mob.” The word “mob” is incredibly vague, meaning it could possibly be applied in a wide range of situations. Additionally, this provision would embolden and legally shield those who wish to harm protestors.  

Over the summer, Tampa got a glimpse of the immense harm this provision could cause. On multiple occasions, cars drove through crowds at Black Lives Matter protests, including an incident in Hyde Park in which a driver swore at nonviolent demonstrators, accelerated over a median towards them, and hit racial justice activist Jae Passmore, who was later hospitalized.* If the bill is passed, attacks like these will likely increase in frequency, jeopardizing the safety of any individual who chooses to express their right to protest.  

The proposal also includes a “Prohibition on Destroying or Toppling Monuments,” a violation of which would result in a second-degree felony charge. Despite the fact that he has not yet suggested any legislation to address the actual issues that caused the protests – police brutality and systemic racism – Desantis has proposed legislation to prevent people from damaging statues – namely those depicting confederate generals or other white supremacists. In doing so, he has effectively prioritized chunks of metal over the lives of Black Americans. 

To make matters worse, the addition of a felony charge could potentially be used to disenfranchise activists. Although in 2018 Floridians voted overwhelmingly to restore the right to vote for those convicted of felonies, Desantis has led the charge to limit that right, such as by requiring former felons to pay off all of their court fees before their rights can be restored. Among the other actions to which the bill adds felony charges is obstructing roadways during a protest – a provision which could be applied and potentially used to disenfranchise thousands of protestors.  

The obstructing roadways provision is also part of a larger, deeply disturbing theme within the proposed bill – the idea that protesting is a threat to society, rather than a sacred right fundamental to democracy. Though 93% of the summer Black Lives Matter protests were peaceful according to a recent study from ACLED Data,** Desantis’s proposed bill nonetheless focuses on criminalizing protesting under the guise of public safety.  

Nearly every item in the bill explicitly refers to participating in an “assembly.” For example, a “Prohibition on Violent and Disorderly Assemblies” establishes a “3rd degree felony when 7 or more persons are involved in an assembly and cause damage to property or injury to other persons.”  Another provision states that it is a “1st degree misdemeanor for a participant in a violent or disorderly assembly to harass or intimidate a person at a public accommodation, such as a restaurant.”  

Were property damage or harassment the true concerns at hand, the specification that they occur during an assembly would be completely unnecessary – the crimes could just as easily be prosecuted without that specification. The existence of this pattern within the bill proves that violence and disorder are not the true targets of the proposed bill – protesting is.  

The proposed legislation even threatens the presumption that all people are innocent until proven guilty. The final provision within the legislation establishes that there would be “No bond or bail until first appearance in court if charged with a crime related to participating in a violent or disorderly assembly.”  

Considering the broad array of new offenses proposed, the fact that an individual is charged with “participating in a violent or disorderly assembly” in no way inherently means that that individual is a threat to society – they may simply have been blocking traffic. Therefore, the bail provision of the bill would automatically violate the rights of the accused individual, without even a semblance of logical justification.  

While the proposed legislation would present an immediate threat to the lives of protestors if passed, it would also set a dangerous precedent of suppression. If the First Amendment rights of Floridians are to be maintained, this bill must never become law.  

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