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Capital Report: DeSantis' Protest Crackdown Legislation Resonates With Some, Sparks Outrage In Others

Governor Ron DeSantis debuted new priority legislation for the 2021 session Monday, flanked by Republican state leadership and law enforcement officers from Polk County
The Florida Channel
Governor Ron DeSantis debuted new priority legislation for the 2021 session Monday, flanked by Republican state leadership and law enforcement officers from Polk County

Governor Ron DeSantis wants to make a crackdown on what he calls disorderly assemblies a focal point of the coming legislative session, or possibly earlier. The move has resonated with some who want “law and order,” and sparked outrage in those who say it’s an attempt to suppress the constitutional right to protest.

In keeping with President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign’s focus on being the “party of law and order,” DeSantis is proposing legislation that stiffens penalties for violence at protests.

Dubbed the “Combating Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act,” the measure would create a six-month mandatory minimum jail sentence for anyone who strikes an officer. It also makes it a felony to obstruct a roadway or deface monuments as part of a “violent or disorderly assembly.”

Going a step further, the proposal also withholds state funding and grants from local governments that attempt to slash law enforcement budgets. DeSantis debuted the legislation alongside local law enforcement in Polk County.

“I think we need to do more in terms of having a strong legislative response, so that we do not always have to play ‘whack a mole’ any time you have situations like this develop,” the governor said Monday. “So, I’m proud today to be able to announce what will be a focal point of the next legislative session.”

The proposed measure, which DeSantis says will likely be the “boldest” in the country, also received some immediate Republican backing. DeSantis was joined at the press event by incoming Senate president, Wilton Simpson, who said he’s “looking forward to making sure this becomes law.”

Republican House Speaker-Designate Chris Sprowls was also on hand for the announcement:

“It’s a unique day because here in the state of Florida today, you have the governor, you have the incoming senate president, and many men and women here from law enforcement across the state, who are making it very clear, that our number one priority in government in the state of Florida is to protect people’s lives, their communities, their neighborhoods, and their property,” Sprowls told media.

Ahead of Trump’s visit to Florida, DeSantis said he wants lawmakers to consider his proposal during an organizational session scheduled for November.

Lynette Halter is a former Tallahassee City Commission candidate who ran as a Democrat, but is now knocking on doors to campaign for Trump. Halter sees the ongoing demonstrations, at least the ones that have yielded videos of violent or tense interactions, as a threat to everyday Americans.

“That unrest is anti-American,” Halter told WFSU. “I believe they are funded to overthrow our way of life.”

DeSantis’ proposed legislation resonates with people like Halter, who fear hidden, powerful financial backers are behind-the-scenes drivers of protests around the country.

“And I think that’s what’s behind it, they’re actually physically funded, or else they’re criminals who came out of the woodwork to burn the neighbors’ businesses,” Halter said. “They’re the worst for the neighbors.”

DeSantis’ proposal also goes after those who organize or fund demonstrations that get disorderly or violent. The legislation would impose RICO liability, under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations law, for anyone found to be doing so.

Meanwhile, organizations like the ACLU of Florida are sounding off on the governor’s proposal. Kara Gross is the group’s legislative director.

“This is obviously a blatant attempt to silence and criminalize and penalize Floridians who want to end racial injustice and systemic racism,” Gross said this week.

Gross says it’s “disheartening” to see the governor and incoming leaders of both chambers prioritizing the crackdown while COVID-19 remains a public health crisis.

“Instead of prioritizing the needs of everyday Floridians, the governor is choosing to prioritize silencing dissent. At this time, we need police accountability, not criminalization of protesters,” Gross said. “And we need legislation addressing systemic racism, not legislation furthering racial injustice.”

Democratic legislators are hitting back.

Orlando Representative Anna Eskamani ripped the governor, after DeSantis called for a special session to take up the legislation. Eskamani says she and fellow Democrats have been calling for state lawmakers to convene for a special session – but for other reasons that she feels should take priority.

(DeSantis) doesn’t want us to actually address his terrible track record, or the terrible track record of the RPOF, so he’s using law and order as an election stunt to distract and scare voters,” Eskamani said during a call with other legislators from her party. “As my colleagues already mentioned, there have been calls for a special session to address cases of police brutality and racial injustice already.”

Some Florida Democratic legislators also called for a special session to address the state’s beleaguered unemployment system during the height of job losses caused by COVID-19.

South Florida Democratic Rep. Shevrin Jones, who is seeking a state Senate seat, called the legislation hypocritical, given Republicans’ usual position of being for small government.

“Republicans claim to be the party of liberty – be that, Republicans. But that’s not what you’re doing today,” Jones said. “What you have just done is a blatant lie, as they pick and choose which people and which communities are afforded civil liberties. And this cannot stand.”

A coalition of activist groups from across the state also held a Zoom call Tuesday to blast the governor’s proposal. Bacardi Jackson, a managing attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, was among them:

“The language appears to be intentionally broad and vague, to add confusion about what conduct would be deemed illegal, further adding to fear, chilling free speech and assemblies, and also leaving broad discretion in a system that reeks with racial bias and uneven enforcement.”

Reactions poured in decrying the provision of the measure that would threaten funding for localities that cut police funding as being against home rule. But Northwest Florida League of Cities president Bob Campbell, who is mayor of DeFuniak Springs, backs the governor’s proposal.

“Well, certainly we like home rule, but this is a precedent that’s got to be stopped. The defunding of police does horrific damage to our cities and our citizens – I really am very in favor of him taking this action,” Campbell said Tuesday.

Since DeSantis rolled out the proposed legislation, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has also debuted protest-related legislation that stiffens penalties for demonstrations that become violent or see property get destroyed.

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.