WINTER HAVEN, Fla. – Gov. Ron DeSantis held a news conference Monday morning in Winter Haven, where he signed a so-called anti-riot bill into law.
HB 1, the “Combatting Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act,” redefines the meaning of protest and riots.
“It is the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country, and there’s just nothing even close,” DeSantis told reporters.
The bill was created in response to nationwide demonstrations last year after the death of George Floyd.
The governor said the new law does multiple things, including providing stiffer penalties for those arrested during riots and holding local governments accountable if they order police to stand down during protests that turn chaotic.
According to the governor, this will allow people to sue local governments for injuries or property damage sustained during these types of incidents.
DeSantis said the law also prevents local governments from defunding law enforcement agencies, and said the idea to do so is “insane.”
“It allows the state to stop cities from cutting funding to police and puts local government on the hook if they ask police to stand down,” the governor said.
Law enforcement officials who spoke at Monday’s news conference said they fully supported peaceful protests, but said this legislation was important to prevent violent incidents.
Francesca Menes, co-founder and Board Chair of The Black Collective, released a statement Monday saying the bill would disproportionately criminalize Blacks in Florida.
“This bill is a direct response to our effective organizing, locally and across the nation to reimagine public safety and value Black lives,” she said. “House Bill 1 will disproportionately criminalize Blacks in Florida, undermine our free speech and punish local governments for responding to the calls to prioritize the needs of their communities. These enhanced felonies, new mandatory minimum and established crimes which are intentionally vague, increases the discretion of individual police officers to interpret any gatherings of three or more Black people in public.”
The anti-riot bill was approved by the Florida House of Representatives earlier this month.
The vote fell along partisan lines with Republicans in support and Democrats opposed. But it languished in the Senate, opposed by Sen. Jason Pizzo of Miami.
“Not a single one of my colleagues ever heard from law enforcement that last year they felt helpless in Florida. That the brave men and woman serving in either sheriff’s departments or local police departments felt helpless with rampant rioters,” Pizzo said.
Many of the rioters who torched police cars and vandalized property during last year’s protests were arrested. With this law in place, they will face stiffer penalties, for “aggravated rioting, causing great bodily harm, damaging property or endangering traffic.”
The legislation creates new criminal offenses and increases penalties for those who target law enforcement and participate in violent or disorderly assemblies.
In fact, the new law gives drivers the right to plow right through demonstrators if they feel threatened without fear of prosecution and immunity from civil charges.
State Sen. Shevrin Jones was among lawmakers criticizing the bill as an attack on progress and a violation of constitutional rights.
“To let Governor DeSantis know that you have just declared war on the First Amendment in the state of Florida,” he said.