By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Brandishing a law-and-order approach to civil unrest, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida’s incoming Republican House and Senate leaders rolled out a legislative package Monday aimed at cracking down on protesters by creating a host of new crimes, as the GOP tries to keep the battleground state in President Donald Trump’s column in November.
The proposal announced by DeSantis, a staunch supporter of Trump, would create new felony crimes when property is damaged or when people are injured as a result of protests involving seven or more individuals.
The measure would also make it a crime to obstruct traffic during unpermitted protests or demonstrations and do away with bail or bond for people involved in violent protests.
And the plan would establish that drivers are not liable for injuries or deaths “caused if fleeing for safety from a mob,” according to a news release issued by the governor’s office.
“We’ve seen disorder and tumult in many cities across the country,” DeSantis, accompanied by sheriffs and police chiefs as well as incoming legislative leaders, told reporters during a news conference in Winter Haven. “I think that this has been a really, really sad chapter in American history.”
DeSantis’ proposal would also increase penalties for striking law enforcement officers during violent protests and impose harsher sentences on protesters who throw objects that hit a law enforcement officer or “civilian” and on protesters who travel to Florida from other states.
The plan released Monday came after months of protests throughout the country in response to the disparate treatment of Black people by police and amid a national reckoning about racial inequities in other areas of society.
DeSantis called his plan a “very robust package” that is stronger than proposals in other parts of the country.
“I think what it’s saying is, we’re not going to let Florida go down the road that some of these other places have gone. If you can do this and get away with it, then you’re going to have more people do it. If you do it and you know that there’s going to be a ton of bricks rain down on you, then I think that people will think twice about engaging in this type of conduct,” he said.
DeSantis’ proposed legislation will likely deepen the schism between Republicans and Democrats over what left-leaning advocates maintain are peaceful protests and conservatives brand as thuggery.
The governor’s package — backed by incoming Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and incoming House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor — is a full-throated endorsement of Trump’s hard-line approach to protests, including those that resulted in destruction of government buildings and retail stores in areas such as Chicago, Portland and Seattle.
Democrats and civil-rights advocates quickly decried the governor’s plan.
“Instead of prioritizing issues impacting people’s lives, Governor Ron DeSantis and the Republican Party of Florida are fear-mongering at the expense of Floridians, and making a mockery of our legislative process to pull a political stunt for Donald Trump ahead of the 2020 election,” Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the state’s top Democrat, said in a prepared statement.
DeSantis “trying to block people from using their 1st Amendment right to protest is a slap in the face to everyone fighting against injustice, especially Black people. It’s wrong and it’s unconstitutional,” state Rep. Shevrin Jones, a West Park Democrat who is running for the state Senate, tweeted Monday afternoon.
DeSantis’ proposal would also punish local governments by prohibiting state grants or aid to cities or counties that cut law-enforcement budgets. The governor said Monday he did not have an estimate of how much the package would cost.
Critics of the plan raised questions about its constitutionality and accused the governor of trying to undermine criminal justice reforms.
“Gov. DeSantis’ proposal is undemocratic and hostile to Americans’ shared values. This effort has one goal: silence, criminalize, and penalize Floridians who want to see justice for Black lives lost to racialized violence and brutality at the hands of law enforcement,” American Civil Liberties Union of Florida Executive Director Micah Kubic said in a prepared statement.
Monday’s announcement came days before Florida supervisors of elections begin broadly sending mail-in ballots on which the president will be at the top of the GOP ticket. In a state with a history of razor-thin elections, Florida’s 29 electoral votes are considered critical for a White House victory.
Gilchrist County Sheriff Bobby Schultz, a Republican who was among the uniformed law-enforcement officials with the governor on Monday, touched on the politics of DeSantis’ announcement.
“There’s some folks coming into an election year. We need to ask those tough questions, because it’s very easy for us to sit there and say, ‘we support law enforcement,’ that we condemn these things. These men just stood in front of you and told you where they stand,” Schultz said, pointing to DeSantis, Simpson and Sprowls. “The folks that’s running, they need to tell you where they stand, and if they are not in the same like-minded position, then they don’t need to be there.”
The effort dubbed the “Combatting Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act” is the first proposal laid out by DeSantis for the 2021 legislative session, which begins in March.
The support of Simpson and Sprowls, who are slated to take over as leaders of their respective chambers following the Nov. 3 elections, could signal a fait accompli in the GOP-dominated Legislature.
Officials in communities where protests have erupted into violence have “abdicated their No. 1 responsibility,” Sprowls, a former prosecutor, said.
“We will not be culpable in the same kind of negligence in our state,” he added.