Florida activists push back against proposed increased punishment for protesters

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – A day after Gov. Ron DeSantis rolled out a legislative package aimed at cracking down on protesters by creating a host of new crimes, a group of Florida civil-rights activists on Tuesday came out strong against the proposed laws.

The Governor’s efforts to curb violent protests with longer jail time, temporarily denying bail and felony charges for obstructing traffic during un-permitted protests brought disdain from protestors from across the state.

Representatives from the Tallahassee Community Action Committee, Southern Poverty Law Center Florida, and a St. Augustine pastor who is known for leading peaceful protests and others were among those who spoke out during a virtual press conference against what they called “draconian rhetoric” that Gov. DeSantis is using in his proposed legislation.

They say the new laws could threaten and criminalize peaceful protesters.

“We believe that this proposed policy is being used to distract the media and organizers from focusing on the real problem: Governor DeSantis’s failures as a governor,” the group of activists wrote in a press release.

The proposal announced by DeSantis, a staunch supporter of Trump, would create new felony crimes when property is damaged or when people are injured as a result of protests involving seven or more individuals.

The measure would also make it a crime to obstruct traffic during unpermitted protests or demonstrations and do away with bail or bond for people involved in violent protests.

And the plan would establish that drivers are not liable for injuries or deaths “caused if fleeing for safety from a mob,” according to a news release issued by the governor’s office.

Rev. Ron Rawls, a pastor at St. Paul AME Church in Lincolnville, was critical Tuesday of law enforcement and the laws proposed DeSantis.

“Ron DeSantis has made no public statement nor introduced any legislation that attempts to address slave catcher brutality, with disproportionate minority contact, by law enforcement but like his mentor [President Donald Trump] he stands on a podium with the abuser blaming the abused," Rawls said. "There remains a great fear and government resistance to black folks speaking up for themselves and choosing not to be docile punching bags for the aggressive.”

Rawls has led protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and against a Confederate memorial in downtown St. Augustine in recent years.

“On its face the proposed so-called combating violence disorder and looting Law Enforcement Act is an affront to our basic constitutional rights," said Bacardi Jackson, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It is no more than an intimidation tactic to scare people into not exercising your rights to free speech and public assembly."

DeSantis' proposal would also punish local governments by prohibiting state grants or aid to cities or counties that cut law-enforcement budgets. The governor said Monday he did not have an estimate of how much the package would cost.

Critics of the plan raised questions about its constitutionality and accused the governor of trying to undermine criminal justice reforms.

When News4Jax told Gov. DeSantis about the pushback, he chuckled.

“Yea, right. Let me just say, do you think it’s okay to throw a brick at a police officer? Do you think its okay to burn down buildings?” DeSantis asked retorically.

Then he drew this distinction.

“Protest all you want. Knock your socks off, but when it goes into violence, you know, that’s when there has to be accountability,” DeSantis said.

Activits argue the idea of granting drivers immunity from arrest for fleeing a mob would encourage white supremacists.

DeSantis did note the state has been spared from extreme violence but said the tough measures will make sure Florida protests don’t take a violent turn.

Normally, a governor’s proposal would get taken up in a March legislative session, but DeSantis is asking lawmakers to take it up in a one-day organizational session in November.

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