Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposed bill to discourage violent protesters dominated conversation Wednesday during the Miami-Dade County Community Relations Board meeting.
For nearly an hour, representatives from several local law enforcement agencies and residents discussed the ramifications of this potential legislation.
“What this legislation does is penalize those who are protesting police brutality,” Chire Regans, a teaching artist at Pérez Art Museum Miami, said.
Formally called the “Combating Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act,” the bill would enact harsher penalties for destructive protesters. Blocking traffic without a permit and participating in assemblies of more than six people that end in injury or property damage would be considered felony offenses. Additionally, anyone who helped fund or organize the gatherings could be federally prosecuted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.
“The community is incredibly concerned about the message that it is sending,” Jessica Sinkfield, the board’s vice chair, said.
These concerns were mainly rooted in the more punitive nature of the legislation, said board program director Shirley Plantin. If enacted, state and local governments could not legally hire anyone with convictions related to the unlawful gatherings. There would also be a six-month mandatory minimum sentence for those found guilty of hitting an officer during a protest, even though the proposal also says a “driver is NOT liable for injury or death caused if fleeing for safety from a mob.”
“Many people believe that it is unconstitutional, it’s undemocratic, it’s challenging people’s First Amendment rights and their right to protest,” Plantin added.
Though DeSantis appeared to have strong support among law enforcement during Monday’s announcement of the bill, the feedback in Dade was mixed.
North Miami Police Maj. James Mesidor spoke in favor of the governor’s stance.
“How much are we as law enforcement going to be able to take?” Mesidor said. “To have frozen bottles thrown on you, bottles full of urine thrown at you — at some point you have to draw the line.”
Retired Miami Police Maj. Ervens Ford, who will represent the Community Relations Board on the county’s newly minted Independent Review Panel, agreed.
“There’s already law in place but it needs to be reemphasized,” Ford said.
Others, like Miami-Dade Police Assistant Director Thomas Hanlon, worried the law could further damage law enforcement’s relationship with the community. Miami-Dade Police Capt. Elise Dillard said it “almost discourages peaceful protests.”
“We need to go after the actual violators who intend to do me harm,” Dillard said, later adding that she doesn’t want to be jailed for attending a peaceful protest.
“People in the community, these protests are very well organized and the organizers, before they get started, they educate this is what we can do and this is what we can’t,” she continued.
DeSantis’ proposed law comes at the tail end of a summer that saw countrywide protests over police brutality following the killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville. Some peaceful demonstrations devolved into violence, with small groups of protesters looting and damaging property. Although the bill wouldn’t appear before legislators until the session that’s scheduled for March 2, the governor made a point of drawing a line on Monday.
“I think it’s important that every single person running for office in the state of Florida this year, whether you’re running for the House, whether you’re running for the Senate, you have an obligation to let the voters know where you stand on this bill,” DeSantis said. “Are you going to stand with law and order and safe communities, or are you going to stand with the mob?”
But with protests erupting over what activists view as an inherent racial bias in policing, Samuel McKinnon, the senior community engagement manager of The Children’s Trust, rounded out the discussion with a question:
“When you see that [this law] will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, do we necessarily know that there’s going to be equity?”