As It Happens

Critics of Florida's anti-riot bill say it's a racist attack on people's right to protest

A new Florida law that cracks down on protesters proves the governor is more interested in protecting the tourism industry than the lives of Black people, says State Sen. Shevrin Jones.

House Bill 1 creates new felonies for people who organize or participate in a violent demonstration

Gov. Ron DeSantis holds a news conference at the Polk County Sheriff's Office in Winter Haven, Fla., on Monday, surrounded by law enforcement, legislators, and police union representatives, to sign a bill to create tougher penalties for people who participate in violent protests. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel/The Associated Press)

Story Transcript

A new Florida law that cracks down on protesters proves the governor is more interested in protecting the tourism industry than the lives of Black people, says State Sen. Shevrin Jones.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 1 — dubbed the "anti-riot" bill — on Monday, creating tougher penalties for people who participate in violent protests and making it difficult for local governments to cut police funding.

"There's an old saying that is, 'Show me where you put your time and your energy, and I show you your priorities.' House Bill 1 is the priority of the state of Florida — not COVID, not protecting Black lives, not protecting and talking about Black men being killed by the hands of police," Jones told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"None of that was his priority. But this was."

'An unapologetic stand for the rule of law'

The new law will enhance penalties for crimes committed during a riot or violent protest, and allow authorities to hold arrested protesters until a first court appearance.

It will establish new felonies for organizing or participating in a violent demonstration. In Florida, a felony charge strips people of their voting rights. 

It also strips local governments of civil liability protections if they interfere with law enforcement's efforts to respond to a violent protest and adds language to state law that could force local governments to justify a reduction in law enforcement budgets.

"In Florida, we are taking an unapologetic stand for the rule of law and public safety. We are holding those who incite violence in our communities accountable, supporting our law enforcement officers who risk their lives every day to keep us safe and protecting Floridians from the chaos of mob violence," DeSantis said Monday.

Rep. Shevrin Jones, pictured here in March 2019, says the bill's language is far too vague. (Steve Cannon/The Associated Press)

The governor was surrounded by the state's highest ranking Republicans and members of local law enforcement when he signed the bill.

One of his supporters, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, said the law is necessary to protect the state's image as a family-friendly tourism destination. 

"This is what we enjoy in Florida. This is the Florida we know and love," he said, holding up photos of a beach, a boat trip and a smiling child next to Mickey Mouse. "This is what all of these law enforcement officers and administrators and sheriffs and police chiefs and their officers do every day."

'Racist, unconstitutional, and anti-democratic'

The bill has sparked backlash from civil rights organizations. In a press release, Micah Kubic, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida, called it "racist, unconstitutional, and anti-democratic, plain and simple."

Jones and other critics noted the bill gives officers too much discretion because it doesn't define the difference between a peaceful protest and a "riot" or violent protest.

"According to the bill we have right now, a police officer can say, 'Well, this is a mob. I feel intimidated and so therefore all of you need to be arrested,'" Jones said. "That's how vague the language is."

The votes on House Bill 1, known as the 'anti-riot bill,' are displayed on a screen after the bill passed during a House session at the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla., on March 26. (Tori Lynn Schneider/Tallahassee Democrat/The Associated Press)

The law will also make it a second-degree felony to destroy or demolish a memorial, plaque, flag, painting, structure or other object that commemorates historical people or events. That would be punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

"It's a total disregard for what's going on across this country when states were taking down Confederate monuments, because we as a country, we're trying to move from that very dark past of Confederacy, especially here within the South," Jones said. 

"And the fact that the governor finds the need to protect Confederate monuments and not protect Black lives, it goes to show where his priorities are."

Jones was also critical of the timing of the bill, signed just days before the jury reached a verdict in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd last year. Chauvin was convicted Tuesday of murder and manslaughter.

Floyd's death sparked a summer of protests across the U.S. and the world calling for an end to anti-Black violence and police brutality. When signing the bill, DeSantis and his allies repeatedly referenced those Black Lives Matter protests in Seattle, Minneapolis and Portland, Ore. 

But Jones noted that nobody referenced the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riot, in which supporters of then-president Donald Trump stormed the capitol in Washington, D.C.

"[DeSantis] didn't make one mention of it," he said.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Shevrin Jones produced by Katie Geleff. 

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