MIAMI (CBSMiami) - With the stroke of a pen, Governor Ron DeSantis signed a controversial law and order bill into law which aimed at cracking down on unruly and violent protests.
DeSantis announced the legislation last September after protests across the nation in the aftermath of the May death of George Floyd, a 36-year-old Black man who died after then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd's neck for at least eight minutes.
"We saw really unprecedented disorder and rioting throughout the summer of 2020 and said that's not going to happen here in the state of Florida. We wanted to make sure that we could protect the people of our great state, people's businesses and property, against any type of mob activity and violent assemblies," said DeSantis before signing the legislation at a ceremony in Winter Haven.
The measure, "Combating Public Disorder," creates new liability for "mob intimidation" and increases penalties for riot-related violence and looting.
"I think it's remarkable if you look at the breadth of this piece of legislation, it is the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country. There's just nothing even close," said DeSantis.
DeSantis and other Republicans say the measures were needed to crack down on violent protests. Democrats and civil rights groups, however, countered that it infringes on First Amendment rights and will disproportionately lead to crackdowns on Black protesters.
The measure also prevents local governments from defunding law enforcement.
"We will be able to stop it at the state level. And if you look at some of the places that have done this they have already seen crime go up, even just diverting some of the funding to this. It's an insane theory and it's not going to ever be allowed to carry the day in the state of Florida and this bill gives us the tools to make sure that doesn't happen," said DeSantis.
The governor said the legislation also holds local government accountable.
"As we saw last summer, some of the local governments were actually telling, not necessarily in Florida but across the country, basically telling these folks to stand down, telling the police to stand down while cities burned, while businesses were burned, while people were being harmed. That's a dereliction of duty. Our bill says, that I'll sign into law, if you are derelict in your duty as a local government, if you tell law enforcement to stand down, then you're responsible for the damage that ensued. If someone has been harmed or their property destroyed, then they can sue you for compensation," said DeSantis.
There are also penalties for people who take over roads or highways.
"Just think about it. You're driving home from work and all of a sudden you have people out there shutting down a highway. We worked hard to make sure that didn't happen in Florida. When they start to do that there needs to be swift penalties, that's something that just cannot happen," said DeSantis.
The legislation also protects monuments and insulates those who kill or injure protesters against civil lawsuits
DeSantis said the new law will help Florida not turn out like Portland where violent riots seem to be a daily occurrence.
State Senator Shervin Jones, a Democrat from West Park, said in a statement, "This legislation undermines every Floridian's constitutional rights, and it is disgusting that the GOP would rather empower vigilantes and silence voices than listen to the majority of Floridians who oppose this dangerous bill."
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat, said the law is "straight from the Communist regime playbook."
"This isn't a game. This Governor and his Republican allies love to talk about the Constitution while shredding it with extreme legislation like HB 1. Silencing the speech of those seeking equality is straight from the Communist regime playbook. The criminal aspects of this bill are already illegal. HB 1 protects no one, makes no one safer, and does nothing to make people's lives better," she said in a statement.
The Florida Democratic Party said in a statement that the anti-civil rights bill is extremely dangerous legislation that directly infringes on the rights of Floridians.
"It's a sad day in Florida. The Florida Republicans' priorities are misaligned with this state and bad for Floridians. Their reckless disregard for opinions and expressions that are not like theirs shows their elite and oppressive tendencies. Criminalizing peaceful protests is unconstitutional and a violation of our civil rights," said Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny Diaz.
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