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Florida Considers Law Changes to Prevent ‘Violent Assemblies’

Legislation has been proposed that would implement nearly a dozen changes to state laws regarding protests, including charging protesters with a third degree felony if they obstruct traffic during an unpermitted protest.

(TNS) —After George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in May hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Sarasota, Fla., for a week of sustained demonstrations calling for racial justice.

Aided by police, who blocked off roadways to prevent cars from converging on protesters, the crowds marched up and down Main Street, stalling traffic on that road and other busy streets, including U.S. 41, Fruitville Road and U.S. 301.

Many of the protesters were high school and college students. A group of young women, college students who were friends from their days at Pine View School, knelt in the rain one day and chanted “I can’t breathe” with a crowd of 200 as they blocked the intersection of Fruitville Road and U.S. 301.

If new legislation proposed by Gov. Ron DeSantis becomes law, those women could be charged with a third degree felony if they obstruct traffic during an unpermitted protest in the future. The prohibition on blocking traffic during a protest is part of a sweeping legislative package aimed at cracking down on “violent assemblies.” DeSantis unveiled the legislation Monday during an event in Polk County with top legislative leaders and law enforcement officials, including Bradenton Police Chief Melanie Bevan.

The proposal quickly became a political lightning road, with Republicans rallying to the governor’s side and many Democrats denouncing it.

In Sarasota County’s hotly contested state House District 72 race, which has touched on issues of race and policing, Republican Fiona McFarland said she’s backing the governor’s plan while Democrat Drake Buckman called it "a political, cynical bill" and an effort to deflect "from what’s going on with COVID."

Dubbed the “Combatting Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act,” the governor’s proposal includes nearly a dozen changes to state law. It establishes new or enhanced penalties for everything from “toppling monuments” to harassing someone in a restaurant and being involved in a demonstration that causes “damage to property or injury to other persons.”

The legislation also would withhold state funding from local governments that cut funding for law enforcement, a swipe at those who want to “defund the police.”

Like much of the country, Florida was convulsed by protests after Floyd’s death. A Black man, Floyd died after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Protesters poured into the streets across Florida, and some of the demonstrations were followed by looting and property destruction. But such incidents were relatively rare in Florida.

Sarasota’s demonstrations were peaceful, with police joining in at one point and kneeling in solidarity with the protesters.

DeSantis acknowledged Monday that Florida hasn’t been a hotbed for violent unrest.

“You didn’t see the type of disorder here in the state of Florida that you did throughout many other parts of the country,” DeSantis said.

But he added that it’s prudent for the state to be prepared and to discourage those who might cause future mayhem.

DeSantis told Fox News host Tucker Carlson Monday that “they’re threatening to riot more, you’re seeing more and more of this. Well OK if this is something that’s coming down the pike we’re gonna say not in Florida it’s not.”

But DeSantis also made it clear Monday that he had election-year politics in mind. President Donald Trump has made “law and order” his central campaign message and has vowed to crack down on violent demonstrations. Republicans leaders believe the issue appeals to swing voters, especially suburban women.

At a Women for Trump event in Sarasota Saturday, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody hammered on the issue of safety and said it will be critical in the election.

“The things that we care about President Trump stands for,” Moody said. “We want safe communities for our children to thrive in, he stands for that and will make the tough choices, even if they’re not popular, to make sure that we’re safe.”

DeSantis said this week that he expects his proposal to be a key campaign issue this year.

“We’re in an election season, everyone running for Florida in the House or Senate, they gotta take a position on this now,” DeSantis said. “Are you for law enforcement, rule of law, or are you going to stand with the mob? I know where I stand.”

DeSantis also may have his own political future in mind. The governor’s popularity has plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic as more than 13,000 Florida residents have died of COVID-19 and nearly 700,000 have been infected.

A Florida Atlantic University poll released last week found 43 percent of Floridians approve of DeSantis, compared to 54 percent in March.

The FAU poll found just 8 percent of Democrats now approve of the job DeSantis is doing, down from 39 percent in March. The governor’s support among independents nearly dropped in half, from 46 percent to 24 percent.

Even Republicans are less enthralled of the governor, with 69 percent giving him a good review compared to 78 percent in March.

Putting himself out front on the law and order issue could shore up the governor’s support with his GOP base, which has become more skeptical of Black Lives Matter demonstrators and concerned about the violence in cities such as Portland, Ore., which is regularly featured on Fox News.

But critics worry that DeSantis’s proposals could criminalize peaceful demonstrations, such as the marches in Sarasota that blocked traffic.

As the governor suggested, the bill is likely to become a point of debate in legislative races across the state this year.

One of the most competitive legislative races in Sarasota and Manatee counties this year is the House District 72 contest, where both Buckman and McFarland have taken positions on the racial justice issue that could have bipartisan appeal.

Buckman told a Sarasota Tiger Bay audience in July that he does not support defunding the police. McFarland said at the same event that “it’s important that I say these words today, which is that Black lives matter.”

In a statement to the Herald-Tribune McFarland said she approves of the governor’s efforts to address “mob violence.”

““Everyone deserves to be safe and secure, as well as peacefully assemble,” McFarland said. “These are important freedoms that government provides, and I applaud the Governor’s increased protections against mob violence and those who would deliberately target our public safety professionals who keep us safe.”

Asked if she supports everything in the governor’s proposal, including felony charges for protesters who block traffic, she said: “I support the governor’s proposal.”

Buckman would not say how he'd vote on the bill.

"If it's brought to me I would have to look at the specifics," he said.

He does not support charging people with a felony for blocking traffic and worries that aspects of the bill would "allow for an overreaction by law enforcement to disperse peaceful protesters." And while he does not support defunding the police, he doesn't believe any Florida cities are doing that.

But Buckman also said rioting shouldn't be tolerated and statues should be removed through a legal process, not torn down.

“Everyone has a right to peacefully assemble," he said. "I don’t believe you have a right to destroy property, that’s a riot, and I also don’t believe you have a right to tear statutes down.”

©2020 Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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