OPINION: ‘Anti-mob’ bill is excessive, ignores actual injustices

A bill introduced in the Florida House of Representatives by Gov. Ron DeSantis unnecessarily increases penalties for violent and disorderly protesters, targets the Black Lives Matter movement and infringes on First Amendment rights. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

A protest took place in downtown Tampa on Sunday afternoon in response to the “Combating Violence, Disorder and Looting, and Law Enforcement Protection Act,” which intends to expand laws against those who act violently toward police officers and was announced by Gov. Ron DeSantis in September 2020.

The “anti-mob legislation,” as DeSantis referred to it when it was introduced, has been in the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee of the House of Representatives since Jan. 27. The legislation would give more authority to police officers to shut down protests, increase penalties for crimes committed at protests and alter defunding laws for local law enforcement agencies, a key demand of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

The bill transparently targets BLM protesters who have been accused of violence and looting as well as grants police officers too much power which could lead to infringements on the right to peaceably assemble, outlined in the First Amendment of the Constitution.  

The most egregious feature of this legislation is a possible violation of a citizen’s right to protest. The First Amendment provides U.S. citizens this right to peaceably assemble, and police have the ability to break up a protest that becomes violent. But this bill would make law enforcement the ultimate authority on deciding to terminate a protest if they deem it has devolved into a riot or mob.

The bill uses ambiguous terminology and language which could lead to an officer violating a citizen’s First Amendment rights. It doesn’t describe what type of evidence an officer needs to prove a violent event happened nor does it say if the officer needs proof at all. The bill could allow law enforcement to easily stop protesters who may not be their biggest fans, like BLM protesters, without facts to support their actions. 

In other words, if a situation were to arise in which an officer shuts down an otherwise peaceful protest he or she disagrees with, the bill gives them that option and effectively violates the protesters’ rights to assemble.

Issues with the legislation go beyond vague language. It also makes punishments for crimes committed while protesting far harsher than they need to be. 

If the bill is passed, punishments would be intensified for protesters who commit “violent conduct resulting in injury or damage to another person or property, or creating a clear and present danger of injury or damage to another person or property,” as stated in the bill, creating a mandatory minimum jail sentence of six months. Charges would also be increased from misdemeanors to felonies for property damage and traffic obstruction within a protest. 

The most severe of the penalty increases is the prohibition of bail or bond until a convicted protester first appears in court. These punishments are unnecessarily exaggerated and reactionary to the current political climate and shouldn’t become law. 

Most of the arrests made during the summer protests were nonviolent misdemeanors anyway. An analysis by The Washington Post performed in October found that 77%, or 2,059, of 2,652 people arrested in the 15 cities it analyzed were charged with nonviolent offenses. 

The act also is in contrast to the pleas of the BLM movement to defund the police and form laws in protection of minorities which historically have been affected by police brutality, the fifth demand listed on the movement’s official website. 

The bill prohibits any local government or state grant from defunding law enforcement budgets, a prominent wish of BLM and providing further evidence to suggest the bill is aimed specifically at hurting supporters of the movement.

This movement is not one that should be dismissed, as many American people support its efforts. After the summer of protests, a Pew Research Center survey of 10,093 American adults in September found that 55%, or 5,551 people, said they supported BLM.

Instead of instating protections for minorities, Florida legislators will be prioritizing the safety of law enforcement rather than those who have been protesting for their safety to be valued by police and the government. 

DeSantis denied this bill was against the BLM movement when asked in the wake of the Capitol riots Jan. 6, promising his intentions were to speak out against violence toward law enforcement of any kind.

“I don’t care what banner you’re flying, if you’re engaging in that conduct, we’re going to hold you accountable,” said DeSantis in a Jan. 7 press conference. 

Despite his seemingly good intentions, DeSantis’ legislation was introduced Sept. 21, in response to the BLM protests and specifically denies BLM protesters the ability to defund the police and obstructs their ability to protest against law enforcement.

If this bill is passed by Florida’s House, it should be stopped by the Senate. Democratic Ranking Member of the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee Michael Gottlieb along with the four other Democrats on the 14-member subcommittee need to work across the aisle to stop the progression of this bill and address real injustices affecting Floridians.

Some legislators in Florida have been listening to BLM protesters, like House Minority Leader Bobby DuBose, who spoke out against DeSantis’ legislation and is working with fellow Democrats to introduce two police reform bills. One of the bills would outlaw no-knock warrants while the other would create a statewide database to track decertified police officers and alert other counties of the officers’ histories if they tried to get hired elsewhere, according to DuBose in a Feb. 9 press conference.

Increasing penalties for protesters and making it harder for convicted protesters to obtain bail is a blatant attack on the BLM protesters, and loopholes for law enforcement can infringe upon Floridians’ First Amendment right to assemble. DeSantis should be following in DuBose’s footsteps and listen to the pleas of Florida protesters instead of attempting to silence them.