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Florida cracks down on protests; toppling statues and blocking roads will be felony offenses

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By Richard Tribou, Mario Ariza and Steven Lemongello

Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida leaders plan to crack down on people involved in what Gov. Ron DeSantis called “disorderly assemblies,” including making it a felony to block a road or topple monuments.

DeSantis proposed a tough new law on Monday in reaction to demonstrations that erupted nationwide after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. The legislation will be filed for the next session that convenes in March.

The law would include minimum six-month jail terms for anyone found guilty of throwing an object at law enforcement officers. It would also define as felonies blocking roadways, taking down monuments, or harassing people in public, among other things.

Seven or more people “involved in an assembly (who) cause damage to property or injury to other persons” would be committing a felony, and city and counties that try to defund the police would lose their state funding.

Another provision would shield drivers from liability “for injury and death caused if fleeing for safety from a mob.”

“Our right to peacefully assemble is one of our most cherished as Americans, but throughout the country we’ve seen that right being taken advantage of by professional agitators, bent on sowing disorder and causing mayhem in our cities,” DeSantis said. “I will not allow this kind of violence to occur here in Florida.”

Stephanie Porta, executive director of the progressive group Organize Florida, called the proposal “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.”

“We should be clear when we’re talking about this: this is not law, and it’s not going to be law,” Porta added. “It’s not constitutional, and we’re going to stop it from passing in the Legislature.”

Protests over Floyd’s death and other police shootings went on for weeks in cities across Florida and the U.S., and some turned violent with looting, destruction of Confederate monuments and confrontations with authorities. In Portland, Oregon, federal law enforcement was sent in by the Trump administration to quell the violence.

In Orlando, police and Orange County deputies have arrested more than 100 people in connection with the Floyd and other protests calling for police reforms. Many were charged with disorderly conduct, either as a misdemeanor or a violation of local ordinances. Others were charged with battery on a law enforcement officer or resisting arrest.

There also have been more than a dozen arrests during the more recent protests over the killing of Salaythis Melvin in August by an Orange County deputy, and authorities said some of those came after protesters blocked roads.

DeSantis, a Republican, said anyone arrested during protests would not be eligible for bail before their initial court hearing. There also would be efforts to identify any groups that are funding or organizing such protests.

One Democratic lawmaker blasted the governor’s plan.

“This proposed legislation is a distraction from the real problems Floridians face,” said Democratic state Rep. Anna Eskamani. “I can only assume the Republican majority is scared of what the November 2020 elections will bring so they do what they know best: lie, create fear, and scapegoat others.”

An activist from Miami called it an effort to suppress the rights of demonstrators.

“This is part of a national policy by Trump’s group to continue violating the right we have as citizens to protest and fight against the ongoing injustices in our country,” said Freddy Peralta of Miami, an activist who has been arrested at demonstrations 11 times in the past three months. “This law attempts to criminalize protests against what is going on. It’s an infringement of our civil liberties.”

The provision shielding drivers if they kill or injure people with cars if they felt they were “fleeing for safety” could open the door for violence against protesters. James Fields, the man convicted of hitting and killing counterprotester Heather Heyer at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, claimed he “felt he was in danger and people were coming at him” when he drove his car into a crowd.

DeSantis unveiled the plan at a press conference at the Polk County Sheriff’s Office that also featured Polk Sheriff Grady Judd, and the Republican leadership of the Legislature in Senate President-Designate Wilton Simpson and House Speaker-Designate Chris Sprowls.

“I can tell you folks, so that there’s no misunderstanding today,” Judd said, while holding up two photos. “This is a peaceful protest. This is a riot. We can tell the difference. The governor can tell the difference. Our law enforcement officers can tell the difference.”

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(Orlando Sentinel staff writer Jeff Weiner contributed to this report.)

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©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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