After the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police last year, Miami joined the nation in widespread protests to bring attention to racial injustices and police brutality in the United States. Most of the protests were peaceful, but Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis latched on to the few occasions that became disorderly to propose a new law that would increase penalties for crimes committed at demonstrations.
Critics cried foul, saying the legislation criminalizes protests, creates a chilling effect on free speech, and unfairly targets Black people who are speaking out against injustices. But the bill moved through the Florida legislature this past session, and DeSantis signed the Combating Public Disorder Act
into law last month.
The day DeSantis signed the bill, community organizers and demonstrators with groups such as the Black Collective
were prepared to take to the streets to protest the legislation. But they didn't — out of fear of getting arrested and being held in custody for an extended period without bail. And that, civil rights attorneys and advocates say, was the entire point of the law.
"They want to create this level of fear in our communities that we don't have a right to voice our concerns and hold individuals in power accountable," says Francesca Menes, co-founder of the Black Collective. "They want us to step back."
Yesterday, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, and the nonprofit legal-aid organization Community Justice Project filed a federal lawsuit against DeSantis, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, and several county sheriffs on behalf of social-justice organizations that are negatively affected by the law. (A copy of the lawsuit is embedded at the bottom of this story.)
"Plaintiffs, Black-led groups of Florida residents who organize and conduct racial justice protests, are fearful that their members risk criminal liability merely for speaking out and advocating for change," the complaint states.
The complaint argues that the anti-protest law violates the First and Fourteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution by curtailing the right to peacefully assemble, suppressing the viewpoints of Black-led organizations and allies while advancing the viewpoints of the state's "law and order" message, and by demonstrating racial discrimination as a motivation for passing the law.
"[The bill] was conceived and passed specifically to silence Black voices protesting around the movement for Black lives," says Alana Greer, director of Community Justice Project. "You can see that in the way it's laid out. Not only is the rhetoric around the bill clearly targeting the protests we saw last summer, it is actually encouraging violence from vigilantes in the same breath. And that's a real threat to organizers each and every day."
Under the anti-protest law, anyone arrested on a charge of battery, aggravated battery, burglary, or theft at a protest that turns violent can have their charges enhanced by one level. Protesters can't post bail until after their first appearance, which could take as long as 48 hours. Anyone who damages a memorial or historic property would face a third-degree felony charge, punishable by up to five years in prison. And if a protester is convicted of battery on a police officer "committed in furtherance of a riot or aggravated riot," they'll be sentenced to a minimum of six months in jail.
Menes, the Black Collective co-founder, argues that the law doesn't only intend to silence Black voices; it intends to suppress voters and upend Black people's entire lives.
"Enhanced penalties shifts things from being misdemeanors to felonies," she says. "As we've seen, even with Amendment 4 [the 2018 Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative
], it's a complex process for returning citizens to restore their rights. This is about people losing their right to vote in the state of Florida. What that means is you will also have difficulty finding jobs, securing housing, getting loans for education or for your business. This is an all-out assault on Black people in the state of Florida."