Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s new bill is an attempt to criminalize protests

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Hours after the U.S. Department of Justice announced it will withhold federal funding for three "anarchist jurisdictions" across the country (New York City, Portland, Oregon, and Seattle), Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) revealed plans to similarly punish cities — and people — within his state.

In a move to punish protesters and counteract a growing movement for police defunding, DeSantis announced a far-reaching bill that includes a litany of penalties for both individuals and municipalities, called the Combatting Violence, Disorder, and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act.

"Today I announced bold legislation that creates new criminal offenses and increases penalties for those who target law enforcement and participate in violent or disorderly assemblies," the governor said in a tweet. The list of "criminal offenses" is extensive and classifies several protest strategies as felonies. For instance, the bill, which will be considered during next year's legislative session, makes blocking traffic a 3rd degree felony — while waiving liability for any driver who causes "injury or death...if fleeing for safety from a mob." Under the proposed law, toppling a monument would be a 2nd degree felony, and striking a law enforcement officer, including with a projectile, would carry a mandatory minimum six-month jail sentence.

"If you are involved in a violent or disorderly assembly and you harm somebody, if you throw a brick and hit a police officer, you're going to jail," DeSantis said in a news conference. "If you can do this and get away with it, then you're gonna have more people do it. If you do it and you know that there's gonna be a ton of bricks rained down on you, then I think that people will think twice about engaging in this type of conduct."

The bill would go even further to limit the ability of individuals who protest police brutality and systemic racism by disallowing people convicted under this law from receiving state benefits or earning a state-funded salary. In doing so, Florida is effectively forcing people to choose between exercising their civil liberties and constitutional rights, and foregoing financial support such as state-funded unemployment insurance — the latter of which is indispensable during the coronavirus-induced economic downturn.

And the legislation doesn't only target individuals. Cities, too, would suffer if they heed protest calls for defunding and redistributing police department budgets. The proposal bears remarkable similarity to the Department of Justice announcement that declared the Trump administration would withhold funds from cities that have reduced their police budgets.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida said in a statement that the governor's order is a thinly veiled attempt to criminalize protest. "Gov. DeSantis’ proposal is undemocratic and hostile to Americans’ shared values," Micah Kubic, the organization's executive director, said in a statement. "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."