Groups sue to block enforcement of DeSantis’ anti-riot law as Cuban violators in FL go largely untouched

By: - July 14, 2021 5:20 pm

In this aerial view, protesters shut down part of the Palmetto Expressway in Miami on July 13, 2021, as they show their support for the people in Cuba who have taken to the streets to protest their government. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Civil rights groups have asked a federal judge to block enforcement of HB 1, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ crackdown on street protests, as thousands of opponents of Cuba’s communist government have violated the law by jamming streets in Florida.

DeSantis proposed the legislation to the Florida Legislature following last summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations, which in some places but not so much in Florida sparked violence.

Now signed into law, the measure specifically sanctions demonstrators who block roadways and raises criminal penalties for participants in protests that get out of hand, even if they’re not to blame.

The Tampa Bay Times has reported the arrest of two men there under the law on charges of battery on a law enforcement officer, resisting law enforcement and taking part in an unlawful assembly that blocked streets or sidewalks.

But authorities largely haven’t enforced the law against the Cuban-Americans and immigrants who have thronged streets and expressways in Miami, Tampa, and elsewhere in solidarity with massive street protests in Cuba. Under the law, the driver of any vehicle who strikes someone demonstrating on a roadway is immune from civil damages.

DeSantis on Tuesday changed the subject, when asked about enforcement, to the goals of the demonstrators in Cuba.

On Wednesday, the Florida Senate’s Democratic leadership wrote a letter to Attorney General Ashley Moody seeking her position on enforcing the law in light of this week’s demonstrations and marches on city streets this summer against gun violence and in sympathy with the Surfside victims.

“We are pleased and frankly thankful that the draconian and anti-democratic measures contained within HB 1 have not been weaponized against those who are peacefully protesting,” the Democrats wrote.

“We believe it is critical for every Floridian to be treated equally, and since we’ve seen peaceful protests emerge across various municipalities and local governments — many spilling onto state roadways — it’s critical that elected officials and Floridians alike have clarity from your perspective as Florida’s chief legal officer as it relates to the new statute.”

The ACLU, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the Community Justice Project brought the lawsuit in May in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida on behalf of The Dream Defenders, The Black Collective, Chainless Change, Black Lives Matter Alliance of Broward, the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, and the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville.

A motion filed Wednesday doesn’t mention this week’s demonstrations but does specifically target the law’s enforcement language, which it denounces as “a guilt-by-association ‘round-up’ provision.” The language, the document asserts, is unconstitutionally vague and encouraging of “arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”

“Plaintiffs and their members are reasonably frightened, not only because they could be arrested and held without bail for peacefully demonstrating, but also because [under the law] it is more likely that plaintiffs and their members could be seriously injured or killed by people who disagree with their message,” the motion reads.

“Consequently, plaintiffs and their members have canceled or modified planned activities and diverted resources from their regular activities to respond to the law,” it continues.

The motion notes that a considerable amount of last summer’s violence was provoked by police and counter demonstrators.

“This law has changed the landscape for what it means to organize and create safer conditions for our communities in Florida,” Nailah Summers of Dream Defenders said in a written statement. “Protest has always been a vital tool for accountability for our public officials. We use protest as a vehicle for change and not only does this law silence our voices, but it puts our lives in danger.”

“HB 1 is a punitive and unjust law created to silence communities, but protect vigilantes. Black Floridians deserve more than a law that continues to suppress their voices.” said The Black Collective’s Krystina François. “Our constitutional right to assemble peacefully and demand justice from a society that would rather criminalize us than uplift our quality of life is necessary.”

A separate legal challenge has been brought by the Lawyers Matter Taskforce and Legacy Entertainment & Arts Foundation, both based in Orlando, joined by Black Lives Matter: Tampa and the Community Empowerment Project.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.