Florida Governor Ron DeSantis Makes it a Felony to Riot During a Protest

Joe Duncan

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has stiffened the penalties for violence during a protest

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Recently, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law the anti-riot bill. Republicans lauded the bill, while some civil rights activists bemoaned the bill for its perceived state overreach. The bill has been a work in progress for a long time now. It started off as an idea in the late summer of 2020, as rioting swept the country in the wake of the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis. Now, the police officer involved, Derek Chauvin, has been convicted of both murder and manslaughter.

The bill had been drafted on January 7th, 2021, in the wake of the Capitol riots in Washington D.C. but was just signed into law this week, right before the pinnacle of the trial.

While the trial and the subsequent gatherings in public both went off without a hitch, the fact remains, if 2020 taught us anything, it's that social unrest is always lurking around the corner. And the governor decided to take action and defend Florida from the same kinds of civil unrest we've seen in other states. Last year, riots erupted in Minneapolis, Seattle, and Portland, leaving behind them a trail of destruction. At one point, President Trump called in federal troops to defend a federal building in Portland, much to the ire of the media and civil rights activists.

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 bill 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. They fear it will be unequally wielded in a political fashion.

At a press conference in Polk County Monday, 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."

So what's actually in the law?

Well, first off, it makes any violence that takes place during a protest a 2nd-degree felony. That's the major sales pitch the DeSantis administration went with when conjuring up the bill in late 2020 and early 2021. The bill doesn't criminalize protests, despite what many media outlets have said, it merely stiffens the criminal penalties for those who conduct violence during a protest.

Besides making violence during a protest a 2nd-degree felony anywhere in the State of Florida, the law also allows the State to intercede on behalf of the citizens if localities try to unilaterally defund the police. It also provides civil immunity for anyone who runs over a violent rioter during a protest. Beyond these, the law:

  • 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.
  • Disallows bail for people arrested for violently protesting until their first court appearance.

While the bill is officially law, there's certainly going to be some legal pushback and it might end up all the way at the Supreme Court. The Governor and Republicans have doubled down, stating that it will help keep our communities safe and free from violence while respecting the right to peacefully protest at other locations, such as city halls.

It should be noted, here, that there were dozens of protests held in Florida last year, some of them very large, but none of them led to the widespread violence we saw in other cities and states last summer. By and large, all of Florida's protests remained peaceful. This leads me to believe that the law is more of a precautionary measure than anything else, seeing as Floridians already protest peacefully at city halls (as opposed to blocking highways). We make our signs, we turn up, we express ourselves as is our constitutional right, and we go home.

Photo: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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