Americans may have thought that the Constitution’s 1st Amendment would protect their rights to the free expression that they exercise when they protest the rampant misuse of police power.
Unfortunately for those who live in Florida, their Republican governor seems to think that the Bill of Rights begins and ends with the 2nd Amendment’s right to bear arms.
It’s difficult to avoid that conclusion after Governor Ron DeSantis (R) made it quite clear through a bill that he is proposing that attacks the freedom of speech of his state’s citizens, including the right to peacefully protest to petition the government for a redressing of grievances.
DeSantis proposed a bill that would limit what he considers “disorderly assemblies” and classify any blocking of roads, public harassment, or toppling of monuments to dead defenders of slavery as a felony under state law.
The law would also mandate minimum six-month jail terms for anyone found guilty of throwing an object at law enforcement officers.
“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,” according to an account of the proposed bill in The Orlando Sentinel.
Another provision would appear to offer a get out of jail free card for any maniacal motorist who takes it upon themselves to mow down protestors blocking their way at an intersection, granting drivers immunity from liability “for injury and death caused if fleeing for safety from a mob.”
DeSantis also said anyone arrested during protests would not be eligible for bail before their initial court hearing and that the state would attempt to identify any groups that are funding or organizing such protests.
Desantis may as well have been lip-syncing to an audiotape of Donald Trump when he offered the rationale behind his decision to push the bill to the Florida legislature.
“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.”
The Florida governor’s motives were questioned by Stephanie Porta, the executive director of the progressive group Organize Florida, who labeled the proposed law as “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 emphasized. “It’s not constitutional, and we’re going to stop it from passing in the Legislature.”
At least one Democratic Florida legislator signaled his opposition to the governor’s planned bill.
“This proposed legislation is a distraction from the real problems Floridians face,” Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando) said. “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.”
Miami activist Freddy Peralta, who has been arrested at demonstrations 11 times in the past three months, expressed his outrage at DeSantis’ efforts.
“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 Peralta. “This law attempts to criminalize protests against what is going on. It’s an infringement of our civil liberties.”
Indeed, activists are afraid that the bill’s provisions granting immunity to motorists who only have to claim fear as an excuse to ram down people whose political views they disagree with are tantamount to granting right-wing extremists a hunting license on progressive dissenters.
Polk Sheriff Grady Judd showed just how dangerous it could be if the determination of what is considered a peaceful protest and what is considered a felonious riot is left up to the decisions of those whose actions and policies are inspiring the demonstrations.
“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.”
By admitting that the final decisions for arrest will be made by parties with a direct political interest in the outcome of the decision, the sheriff demonstrates exactly why the Republican politicians can’t be trusted to be the final arbiters of the legitimacy of any protest.
“Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
You step out of line
The man come and take you awayWe better stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down.”— “For What It’s Worth” — Buffalo Springfield“Fascists on the attack,we will fight them back.Fascists on the attack,we will counter attack.”— “Fite Dem Back” — Linton Kwesi Johnson
Original reporting by Richard Tribou, Mario Ariza, and Sgven Lemongello at The Orlando Sentinel.
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Vinnie Longobardo is a 35-year veteran of the TV, mobile & internet industries, specializing in start-ups and the international media business. His passions are politics, music and art.