WINTER HAVEN, Fla. – Joined by Florida Republican lawmakers and representatives from law enforcement agencies around the state, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday morning signed into law the controversial so-called anti-riot bill that aims to address protests that turn violent.
“I think it’s really remarkable if you look at the breadth of this particular piece of legislation,” DeSantis said during a news conference in Winter Haven. “It is the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country. There’s just nothing even close.”
Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature approved stiffer penalties against violent protesters last week, handing a major legislative victory to DeSantis, who began campaigning for the measure last year following a summer of turmoil across the country over the killings of Black people by police. The measure was sent to DeSantis last week as new protests erupted in a Minneapolis suburb after another fatal police shooting of a Black man.
A divided Florida Senate approved the bill as the trial of a former Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, was underway for the death of George Floyd, a Black man whose death under Chauvin’s knee triggered waves of protests. Police are preparing for more possible protests following a verdict in the Chauvin trial where closing arguments started Monday.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said he proposed the law to “combat violence, disorder, looting, and protect law enforcement.”
He said the bill also addresses the push by some to “defund the police.”
“Obviously in the state of Florida, we’re not going to do that under my leadership but if the local government were to do that, that would be catastrophic and have terrible consequences for their citizens and so this bill actually prevents against local governments defunding funding law enforcement,” DeSantis said. “There should be no doubt, the minute I sign this bill into law, anybody who wears the uniform in service of protecting the public, this bill makes very clear, the state of Florida, stands with you.”
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who has been critical of the law, said the bill was fast-tracked and bypassed the accountability of numerous Senate committees.
“This isn’t a game. This Governor and his Republican allies love to talk about the Constitution, while shredding it with extreme legislation like HB 1,” Fried said. “Silencing the speech of those seeking equality is straight from the Communist regime playbook. The criminal aspects of this bill are already illegal. HB 1 protects no one, makes no one safer, and does nothing to make people’s lives better. It’s simply to appease the Governor’s delusion of widespread lawlessness, and it’s frightening to imagine the lengths to which he’ll go to strip away rights and freedoms for political gain. The message from this Governor and his enablers is loud and clear: if you disagree with him, you will be silenced.”
State Rep. Angie Nixon, D-Jacksonville, spoke during the news conference with Fried.
“We know that this bill was by design,” Nixon said. “Clearly, there’s a group in the state legislature that felt that they were about to lose power.”
The law increases penalties for crimes during a riot or violent protest, won’t allow people arrested in violent protests to be released from jail before a first court appearance and makes it a felony to organize or participate in a violent demonstration. It also protects all monuments in Florida, DeSantis said.
Andrew Warren, State Attorney for the 13th Judicial Circuit, said passing laws doesn’t prevent crime before it happens.
“It doesn’t give prosecutors any additional tools that we don’t already have to prosecute people who are committing crimes during a riot,” Warren said. “And enhancing penalties is a pretty lazy and ineffective way to address public safety.”
Warren said the law could also threaten First Amendment freedoms. He said if 100 people are peacefully protesting and three people do something bad, the other 97 are guilty of participating because they were there.
Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams issued a statement:
“I am very pleased that our Governor has demonstrated yet again his support for law enforcement in signing House Bill 1 – the Anti-Riot Bill. Jacksonville, along with the rest of the state is ready to work together to build stronger bridges of trust and cooperation while maintaining public safety. Public Safety is paramount for everyone in Florida – our families, our neighbors and our businesses.”
The law strips local governments of civil liability protections if they interfere with law enforcement’s efforts to respond to a violent protest and add language to state law that could force local governments to justify a reduction in law enforcement budgets.
The proposal would also make it a second-degree felony to destroy or demolish a memorial, plaque, flag, painting, structure or other object that commemorates historical people or events. That would be punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
The measure drew intense passions over the months, as community activists from across the state gathered in the state Capitol during to implore lawmakers to turn down the effort.