Last week, the majority of Americans were horrified by the attempted coup at our nation’s capital. We watched as the halls of the Capitol building were desecrated with feces, while some in law enforcement acted in a complicit manner with those seeking to overthrow a legitimate election. This unrest was driven by members of the Republican party who could not accept that our President-elect is Joe Biden, and that America voted against white extremism.
Sadly, the only takeaway that two lawmakers in Florida received was to file a bill to chill free speech in our state. Earlier this summer, as we faced unrest around the globe as a result of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other unarmed people of color by police officers, Gov. Ron DeSantis made a point to discuss his proposed “anti-mob” bill. He made it crystal clear that it was to attack those who were raising their voices around the issue of police brutality.
The two bills introduced were Senate Bill 484, by Sen. Danny Burgess (R), and House Bill 1, by Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin (R). Both indicated they were bringing forth the bills in response to the attempted coup at the Capitol, which is disingenuous in light of the governor’s previous statements. What adds insult to injury is that the legislators are using the disgusting actions of their own party members last week to justify this bill, when the true intent – laid bare by the governor’s previous comments – is to attack those advocating for an end to police brutality.
While the original proposal by the governor was far more awful – it included a provision to allow people to run over protestors in the street as well as a disgusting expansion of the already problematic Stand Your Ground law – the new version is not much better. This bill is in lockstep with Gov. DeSantis’ unconstitutional and racially insensitive vision for the state of Florida.
It still protect monuments to slavery and oppression. While the bill specifically lists monuments such as the Florida Medal of Honor Wall, Florida Holocaust Memorial and Florida Slavery Memorial in a feeble attempt to seem reasonable, the devil is in the details, because it also includes the catch-all phrase “any memorial to a historic event.” The only memorials that have faced criticism in Florida are those that honor the Confederacy, another time in American history where white extremism led to civil unrest.
The bill makes already severe penalties more so for a variety of crimes. By law, charges such as burglary, aggravated assault and aggravated battery are felonies that can cause a person to receive up to 15 years in prison depending on the circumstances. The proposed legislation seeks to increase these maximums, and also hold people without bond until first appearance. There is no reason to enhance these charges, which in the long run will cost taxpayers more due to longer prison sentences, while doing nothing in terms of public safety.
Law enforcement is well protected under the current law. Aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer carries a minimum mandatory sentence of three years in prison; aggravated battery on a law enforcement officer has a five year minimum mandatory. Neither charge eliminates the possibility of a longer felony sentence. Additionally, Florida Statute 870.01 makes inciting a riot a felony punishable by five years in prison. There are also federal charges available under the “Anti-Riot” act for crossing state lines to riot. Also problematic is that there is no definition of what a “riot” is by law. A riot to one prosecutor may look like a protest to another, resulting in unequal treatment as well as disparate outcomes. As a former prosecutor, I can conclusively say that prosecutors have a wide array of options in Florida, especially if there are injuries, making this bill a solution in search of a problem.
The bill attacks the sovereignty of municipalities in deciding what is appropriate for their residents, by adding provisions that would hamstring local governments if they decide to allocate less funds in their budgets to police. The voters selected their local officials, entrusting them to be good stewards of their communities. Preventing cities from acting in the best interests of their residents is another form of voter suppression.
The only positive note is protections against cyber intimidation, aka “doxxing,” the practice of releasing personal addresses of activists for the purposes of intimidation or harm. That should be a stand-alone bill. But the rest should go into the trash because that is what it is – trash. The gall to think the voters are so stupid to not see through this thinly veiled attempt at suppressing the voices of Black and brown people will not serve DeSantis well as 2022 approaches.
The reality is we have current laws in place that can be used if, God forbid, the same thing that happened at the Capitol on Jan. 6 happened here. There are flyers circulating encouraging the same actions in all state capitals on Jan. 17. The question is, will DeSantis deploy all available law enforcement if the same happens here, as then Gov. Rick Scott did when white extremist Richard Spencer spoke In Tallahassee in 2017? Or would DeSantis “stand back and stand by”?
Melba Pearson is an attorney, writer, speaker, wife and expert on criminal justice issues. She previously served as a homicide prosecutor in Miami, and as deputy director of the ACLU of Florida. Follow her on Twitter @ResLegalDiva.