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Opinion Florida’s new ‘anti-riot’ law benefits one person: Ron DeSantis

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signs a bill creating tougher penalties for people who participate in violent protests, in Winter Haven, Fla., on April 19. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/AP)
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Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, seldom passes up an opportunity to celebrate the Sunshine State’s greatness under his watch. Earlier this year, he told television viewers that cities in Florida looked nothing like Minneapolis or other cities that had struggled with protracted violent outbreaks following the death of George Floyd in police custody last May.

“You didn’t see here what you saw there,” DeSantis told Tucker Carlson on Fox News in January, echoing the sentiment more than once.

The governor was right — there were protests in Florida last summer, but local organizers worked hard to try to keep them peaceful, and local police mostly did a good job of preventing damage and injuries. The few incidents of looting or fire-setting that erupted were short-lived.

Yet, on Monday last week, as a jury deliberated whether to convict former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin of murdering Floyd, DeSantis signed into law a draconian, First Amendment-vandalizing measure supposedly intended to prevent looting, arson, blocking highways and “mob intimidation” (whatever that means). And seemingly just in case mobs planned to pillage Florida cities if Chauvin were acquitted, DeSantis immediately enacted the law, a rarity.

“It is the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country. There’s just nothing even close,” crowed DeSantis, who has emerged as a leading potential Republican presidential candidate during the pandemic. “We’re not going to let the mob win the day.”

Across the country, Republican leaders are scrambling to one-up each other with anti-riot bills that could ruin protesters’ lives for simply attending a march. So far, a total of 81 anti-protest bills have been filed in 34 states this year, according to the New York Times. No matter that more than 96 percent of protests in May and June last year over Floyd’s killing involved no property damage or police injuries, The Post reports.

“These folks who are organizing these protests know they are in a tough situation,” Melba Pearson, a former prosecutor who lost her race for Miami-Dade state attorney last year, told me. “How do you prove that you did not intend for this protest to go violent? How do you prove a negative?”

The law, which already faces a lawsuit from the nonprofit Legacy Entertainment & Arts Foundation, transforms many public disorder misdemeanors into felonies. It denies bail to protesters until they see a judge. A newly defined category of misdemeanor is called “mob intimidation,” defined as two or more people using even the “threat of force” to try to change someone’s “viewpoint.” A “riot” is defined as at least three people who, together, pose at least a “clear and present danger” to someone or something.

The law’s fine print also gives the state the power to override attempts to shrink police budgets. But even the Republican state legislature seems to recognize that some sort of police reform is needed: It is expected to pass some mild reforms this week, including tougher rules on choke holds and a requirement that officers intervene if another uses excessive force.

As for the “anti-riot” law, precisely what kind of behavior or language would make someone liable for “inciting a riot”? Hard to say, because the statute is so vaguely written. Meanwhile, Florida already had laws on the books to deal with public disorder during a demonstration and, by most measures, they have worked. The last full-blown riot in the state was in 1989 after a Miami police officer was acquitted in the shooting death of an unarmed Black man.

“It’s not like prosecutors are sitting there saying, ‘We’ve got nothing to work with — what can we charge them with?’” Pearson told me.

Peaceful protesters could easily find themselves unintentionally caught up in heated situations that could result in their arrest for a felony and jailed without bail until they come before a judge, typically a day or two later. This could cost them their jobs and make them vulnerable to hasty, desperate plea deals, which could ruin their lives in countless other ways.

And for what? For marching on the streets to protest injustice, a right and tradition embedded in America’s origin story (and ballyhooed by Republicans who adore those musket-bearing Minutemen and tea-dumping patriots).

State Sen. Jason W. B. Pizzo, the Democratic chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, whose panel was bypassed by the Republican-controlled Senate, told me the law is “a completely overreaching dragnet.” It’s the proverbial “solution in search of a problem,” he said. Plus, “Nobody even asked for this law.”

But the beneficiary is obvious: DeSantis and his outsize ambition. His popularity among Trump devotees, who are cheering the new law, continues to skyrocket. “He may be a lot of things,” Pearson said, “but he’s not stupid.”

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