A harsh reality: DeSantis’ anti-protest law means protesters of all kinds must be careful or land in jail

By: - April 20, 2021 7:00 am

People in Philadelphia protest the police killing of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, just miles from Minneapolis where George Floyd was murdered last May by policeman Derek Chauvin, convicted last week of murder. Credit: Mark Makela/Getty

Participating in a public protest in Florida is more hazardous this morning than it was yesterday morning.

Whether Floridians want to protest for Black Lives Matter, pro-life, pro-choice, women’s rights, gun rights, gun control or a host of other issues, starting Monday they risk being branded a criminal under a new Florida anti-protest law pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The governor says peaceful protestors have nothing to fear because the new law, formerly known as House Bill 1, is meant to deter riots, looting and other violence, with penalties as high as 15 years of imprisonment.

But that’s not how people who organize protests see it. They’re on high alert.

Starting Tuesday, racial-justice advocates with The Black Collective, a Florida non-profit, will canvas in select Florida counties to advise people about the risks they now face if they engage in a protest.

“You need to be aware of your surroundings. You need to be aware when three or more people are around you and police are close by. Practice heightened awareness,” said Francesca Menes, the collective’s co-founder and board chair.

“We’re starting canvassing door to door to educate and inform our base…so that before they take to the streets, they understand the risks,” Menes said. What’s new, she said, is that crimes are defined so broadly in the new law that peaceful protesters will be treated much the same as violent ones.

With a verdict expected soon in the trial of now-fired Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin, charged with killing George Floyd, an unarmed Black man last May, Menes said Floridians need to be warned about this harsh new reality. The collective will start its awareness campaign in Broward, Dade, Palm Beach, Hillsborough, Duval, Alachua and Leon counties.

Menes and other critics predict the new law will lead to disproportionate arrests of Black people. While many in hthe movement for Black lives are willing to go to jail for their cause, others, she said, cannot afford to take that chance.

The new law will make ordinary citizens think twice about joining a protest, knowing that if any disorder occurs, even not of their doing, it could land them in jail overnight, brand them with a criminal record, cost them their jobs, or even put them at risk of being injured or killed by counter-protesters.

That said, various advocacy groups say they’re not giving up on protests.

“March For Our Lives condemns the passage of HB 1 into law. We will be protesting, and will not shy away from making our voices heard,” said Monique Mendez, spokeswoman for the gun-safety organization created after the 2018 shooting massacre in Broward County at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

“We won’t sit silent on this issue and we won’t let this stop peaceful protests across the state of Florida,” said Adora Obi Nweze, president of the NAACP Florida State Conference and a member of the national board of directors.

Whether their defiance endures under the realities of the harsh new law remains to be seen.

Effective immediately upon being signed Monday, the new law broadly intensifies penalties for offenses committed during protests, regardless of who exactly committed them. Critics say it also emboldens vigilantes by shielding them from civil liability if they injure or even kill protesters, including striking them with an automobile.

The law called the “Combating Violence, Disorder and Looting, and Law Enforcement Protection Act” of 2021, drew scathing criticism from Democratic lawmakers, civil-rights organizations, religious-freedom advocates, environmentalists and other parties predicting the law will quell the constitutional rights to assemble and exercise free speech in Florida – by making them hazardous to practice.

March For Our Lives is giving serious thought to those hazards.

“We hope that this will not dampen turnout, but it is hard to say for in-person demonstrations,” Mendez wrote in messages with the Phoenix. “However, our organization can and has quickly pivoted to virtual efforts to bring about gun-violence prevention legislation and keep the momentum going.” She noted the coronavirus pandemic already had driven many functions of society to online operations.

The Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops had not decided by late Monday how to advise its members on future staging of anti-abortion rallies at women’s clinics or any other demonstrations on its agenda.

“We are still evaluating the implications of the new law on our ministries. We have nothing else to offer in this regard at this time,” spokeswoman Michele Taylor told the Phoenix by email.

Meanwhile, the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) also are evaluating the implications of the new law, and whether they will go to court to challenge if it violates rights to freedoms guaranteed in the United States Constitution.

“We’re reviewing our options and will make a decision on how to proceed soon,” said SPLC spokesman Larry Hannan.

Rep. Michele K. Rayner denounces Gov. DeSantis’ anti-protest/anti-riot law. She is flanked by Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, at left, Rep. Angie Nixon, at right, and Rep. Anna Eskamani, in pink jacket. Screenshot: The Florida Channel

ACLU of Florida executive director Micah Kubic said about the new law: “It is outrageous and blatantly unconstitutional,” according to a press statement.

He cited economists saying the law will cost taxpayers millions of dollars by incarcerating people in jails and prisons that already are overcrowded.

Nailah Summers, representing Dream Defenders, said in a statement to the press that the new law is one of several Republican priorities this legislative session that are discriminatory and can make life harder for Floridians.

“Black Lives Matter and so do our constitutional rights. We’ll see you in court,” Summers declared.

In addition to quashing riots, the law also prohibits local governments from reducing their spending on law enforcement for any reason, striking back at calls to “defund” or “reimagine” police operations in ways meant to reduce violent encounters between police and the policed.

“I am tired. I am sad. I am angry. But we will not stop. We will continue to resist,” said Democratic state Rep. Michele K. Rayner a Black, lesbian, civil-rights attorney elected to the House of Representatives from the Tampa Bay region.

Rayner said the governor and his allies scored a political victory this session, at the expense of law-abiding Floridians who want to raise their voices, but she predicted citizens’ grievances – from police brutality against Black people to gun owners opposing universal background checks — will not go away.

“You have awakened a giant,” she said, “and we will be relentless in the face of injustice.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.