Florida governor Ron DeSantis has threatened to bring felony charges against protesters arrested on a broad range of charges targeting “disorderly assemblies” in the wake of widespread demonstrations against police brutality.
His proposal would cut off protesters from eligibility for unemployment benefits and keep people imprisoned without bond if they’re arrested during demonstrations until their first appearance in court, among several severe and potentially unconstitutional measures aimed at
Seven or more people “involved in an assembly” that causes property damage or injury would be committing a felony, according to his proposal.
The governor’s sweeping legislation would also make blocking traffic a felony and invoke RICO statutes to identify protest organisers and link them to organised crime.
“If you do it, and you know that a ton of bricks will rain down on you, then I think people will think twice about engaging in this type of conduct,” he said during a press conference.
The governor’s “Combating Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act” will be a “focal point” of the 2021 state legislative session, the governor announced on Monday.
“You have an obligation to let the voters know where you stand on this bill,” said Governor DeSantis, addressing officials running for office. “Are you going to stand with law and order and safe communities, or are you going to stand with the mob?”
Florida’s Sheriffs and Police Chiefs associations backed the proposal.
State lawmakers and civil rights groups immediately condemned the proposal as an unconstitutional threat to First Amendment protections as Black Lives Matter demonstrations persist and Republicans heighten their opposition in the days leading up to Election Day.
Florida’s Community Justice Project called the measure “an unconstitutional and offensive attempt to chill speech and divide our communities” and urged the governor to focus on the state’s Covid-19 infection rate and “not criminalising dissent”.
Stephanie Porta, executive director of the progressive group Organize Florida, told the Sun Sentinel that the measure is merely “an election stunt focused on tamping down current protests that are being planned around the Supreme Court, as well as people getting into the streets to demand that every ballot gets counted.”
“This is out there to absolutely scare people into not using their constitutional rights for freedom of speech,” she said.