Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a controversial bill aimed at curbing riots and property destruction into law on Monday, despite fierce opposition from Democrats in the state, who claim that it would chill peaceful demonstrations.
The new law increases the penalties for assault, battery, arson, and robbery, as well as battery against a law enforcement officer during a riot, and prohibits the destruction or defacement of memorials or historic property.
In a news conference on Monday, DeSantis, a Republican, praised the law as “the best, anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the world.”
“We’re also putting an end to the bullying and intimidation tactics of the radical left by criminalizing doxing and requiring restitution for damaging memorials and monuments by rioters,” he added.
Democrats argue that peaceful demonstrators may be wrongfully arrested and that the law targets minority groups, despite Florida Republicans’ claims that the act is about improving protection and preventing crime.
The law dubbed the “Combating Public Disorder Act,” establishes two new offences: “mob harassment” and “doxing an individual,” which entails electronically publishing someone’s personal information with the intent of threatening or harassing that person.
A person arrested for such crimes committed during a riot will also be kept in jail until their first court appearance, preventing them from posting bail right away. An individual convicted of battery against a law enforcement officer during a riot faces a minimum of six months in jail.
Besides, in response to demands from some Democrats to “defund the cops,” the Florida legislation would allow an appeal if a municipality cuts its police budget.
There is also a clause to establish an affirmative defence for a civil defendant who claims to have been defending themselves or their property against a rioter; Democrats have expressed fears that this would promote vigilantism.
The new law was signed as jury hearings in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the death of George Floyd were underway.
As the Minneapolis metropolitan area and other cities reel from police-involved deaths, including the fatal shooting of 20-year-old Daunte Wright by an officer in Brooklyn Center — just miles from the courthouse — the verdict in one of the most closely watched police brutality trials in decades could come this week.
Following Floyd’s death last summer, a national reckoning on policing and structural racial inequality erupted, resulting in fresh, often violent protests around the world. However, Democratic lawmakers in Florida made it clear earlier Monday that they see the new legislation as a step backwards.
“Governor DeSantis’ actions today go to show that he’s not concerned about the lives of Black and Brown people, who so happen to be citizens of this diverse state we call home,” state Sen. Shevrin Jones said during a news conference.
“If he was concerned, he would have addressed the killing of Black men at the hands of police officers.”
Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried echoed this sentiment, claiming that the legislation “made it more dangerous for people here in our state who want to stand up against injustice and bring improvements to society.” State Rep. Bobby Dubose posited, “As a father trying to raise four young Black men in this state, HB1 terrifies me,”
“We know from a lifetime of experience who this will harm — communities of colour,” Dubose added.
In a statement, Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren slammed the bill for leaving “only enough space to violate the law and make it a felony to be present at a protest where other people do something wrong.”
The law, Warren said, “isn’t going to change anything that we’re doing in Hillsborough County,” which includes Tampa.
“We will continue to aggressively prosecute people who cause violence and destruction and aggressively defend First Amendment rights.”