Florida’s Senate has voted to approve an "anti-riot" bill supported by Republicans, and Gov. Ron DeSantis in particular, but criticized by Democrats and civil rights groups as limiting the right to protest in the state, the Orlando Sentinel reports.
The newspaper notes that Democrats and civil rights organizations specifically point to the provisions in the bill that "grant civil legal immunity to people who drive through protesters blocking a road; prevent people arrested for rioting or offenses committed during a riot from bailing out of jail until their first court appearance; and impose a six-month mandatory sentence for battery on a police officer during a riot."
The bill also states that a city cannot reduce its police budget without prior approval from the state, in an apparent response to the movement to redistribute some of the funding that goes towards police.
Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, said on the Senate floor during a debate, "This bill is about preventing violence."
When asked whether the bill would have protected James Fields, the white supremacist who killed protestor Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, from civil action, Burgess said that the bill does not protect against criminal charges, and said that the provision on drivers would not apply to people who target protestors.
But Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, said that the bill is a "mail piece for reelection for a specific base who wants it. ... We have to [instead] pass legislation for all Floridians."
Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, read the First Amendment aloud on the floor and said, "We know the governor wants this piece of legislation. We don’t have to do everything the governor wants."
On Wednesday, Republicans refused Democrats’ 16 amendments to the bill, eventually passing it in the Senate on Thursday.
Cliff Albright, the co-founder and executive director of Black Voters Matter, told reporters on a conference call after the vote that the legislation is an attempt to "criminalize" the protests that began following the death of George Floyd last year.
"And in response to that, for the state to say, we’re going to criminalize your activity. We’re going to criminalize your passion. We’re going to criminalize your protest. That’s not what democracy looks like," Albright said.
"This legislation strikes the appropriate balance of safeguarding every Floridian’s constitutional right to peacefully assemble while ensuring that those who hide behind peaceful protest to cause violence in our communities will be punished," DeSantis said in a statement, according to The Hill. "Further, this legislation ensures that no community in the state engages in defunding of their police."
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