Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday signed into law a bill that civil rights groups warn is designed to crack down on peaceful demonstrations and criminalize dissent by redefining “rioting” in an overbroad way and creating draconian new felonies for protest-related offenses.
While DeSantis and the bill’s Republican sponsors in the Florida legislature presented HB1 as a response to the attack on the U.S. Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters earlier this year, critics say the measure—crafted well before the January 6 attack—is in fact a reaction against the racial justice protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd last May.
“Let’s be clear: this is not an anti-riot bill, regardless of what supporters claim,” Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said in a statement Monday. “It is a bill that criminalizes peaceful protest, and the impact HB1 will have on Floridians cannot be disputed. Each and every provision harkens back to Jim Crow.”
Kubic went on to warn that under the new law—which is part of a wave of similar Republican measures under consideration nationwide—protesters could be arrested and charged with a felony if others at a protest or gathering became violent or disorderly, even if they themselves didn’t.” According to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, HB1 defines rioting as a public disturbance by at least three people with “common intent to mutually assist each other in disorderly and violent conduct.”
“The goal of this law is to silence dissent and create fear among Floridians who want to take to the streets to march for justice,” said Kubic. “Every single Floridian should be outraged by this blatant attempt to erode our First Amendment right to peacefully assemble. It is outrageous and blatantly unconstitutional. Gov. DeSantis’ championing of and signature on this law degrades, debases, and disgraces Florida and our democracy.”
As the Orlando Sentinel reported Monday, the new law makes blocking a highway a felony offense and “creates a broad category for misdemeanor arrest during protests, and anyone charged under that provision will be denied bail until their first court appearance.”
The law also “grants civil legal immunity to people who drive through protesters blocking a road, which Democrats argued would have protected the white nationalist who ran over and killed counter-protester Heather Heyer during the Charlottesville tumult in 2017,” the Sentinel noted.
Democratic state Sen. Shevrin Jones said in a statement Monday that HB1 “undermines every Floridian’s constitutional rights, and it is disgusting that the GOP would rather empower vigilantes and silence voices than listen to the majority of Floridians who oppose this dangerous bill.”
“The governor’s spectacle is a distraction that will only further disenfranchise Black and brown communities,” said Jones.
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