Let there be no confusion, Gov. Ron DeSantis and those in the Florida legislature claim that the HB1 “Anti-riot bill” (aka the DeSantis Oppression and anti-protest law) was enacted to combat the sort of violence seen at the Capitol on January 6th. But those aren’t the rioters the governor is afraid of; rather, the Trumpist republican crowd that stormed the Capitol are the very people DeSantis has spent his political career cozying up to (along with wealthy mega-donors). We all know those aren’t the people this legislation will be used against. Rather, the people DeSantis truly fears are those engaged in the worldwide movement to fight for racial justice and end police killing of unarmed black bodies. This legislation was drafted in September 2020, long before the Capitol riot, specifically in response to the massive showing of solidarity in the wake of police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others. DeSantis fears people in the streets organizing for a more just world because he, rightfully, sees us as a direct threat to the systems of oppression that brought him to power. The passage of this bill shows that ALL of the republican rhetoric around “protecting free speech”, “limited government”, and “promoting law and order” are simple ploys which they have no problem actively abandoning at the first opportunity to seize more power for themselves.
They will tell you that this law is to protect free speech and the right to peacefully protest while preventing violent riots and property destruction. The quiet part they won’t mention is that it gives the police discretion to distinguish a protest from a riot. Proud Boys assembling in public spaces with open carry weapons to intimidate voters—”peaceful protest”. Thousands of decent working class people came together to demand a reimagining of public safety and an end to police executions—”violent riot”. Because to those in power, actions that challenge their authority and push back against their oppression, are indeed acts of violence (in their minds). Whereas, true violence, like mowing over a protestor with a vehicle, is actually protected from any civil liabilities in this legislation, completely peaceful members of a protest can be arrested, held without bail, and charged with a felony simply for being present at a “riot” (that is, a protest where police-deemed “violence” or “property destruction” magically transformed it into a “riot”). This law does more to protect the sanctity and well-being of statues of confederate officers than to promote the safety and well-being of Floridians exercising their first amendment rights. To DeSantis and the Florida Legislature, their story of “American exceptionalism” and thinly veiled white supremacy must be defended with every tool in their arsenal against the lived reality of millions of human beings (those “exceptional” Americans) who see the cages and extrajudicial executions for what they are. We know that the vast majority of protests in the Summer of 2020 were entirely peaceful. And that was the problem. DeSantis couldn’t criminalize the millions of people peacefully assembling to undo the systematic marginalization and silencing of the black community. With HB1, that criminalization is now possible, as ANYONE at a protest where at least one person is accused of acting violently or destroying property can be charged with an “aggravated riot” 2nd degree felony. They are scared of the power we displayed last Summer, and knowing that the numbers are not on their side, have sought to tip the scales using the threat of violence and intimidation. Our response must be to continue to organize and show them what true power looks like.
They will tell you that the republicans are the party of “limited government”. Yet the very same people saying they hate “Big Government” have now enacted laws to further centralize control over municipal law enforcement budgets. With this legislation, the governor’s office, by special panel, has the power to amend municipal budgets that seek to reduce policing and incarceration apportionment. So if Miami or Tampa or Pensacola decide they want to balance their budget (according to their rhetoric, a republican dream), and recognize that policing takes by far the largest portion of the municipal pie, the same government bureaucrats in Tallahassee preaching “limited government” and “fiscal responsibility” are going to FORCE cities to continue wasting more money year after year on a system which only serves to devastate and traumatize our communities. If a city decides to finally listen to the science and evidence about how to actually reduce crime (i.e., promote a decent and equitable standard of living, provide opportunities for work and skill development, offer addiction treatment, etc.), they will be told that the governor and his cronies know better than the sociologists, healthcare professionals, and criminologists.
They claim this legislation is meant to show the state’s commitment to “law and order”, a dog-whistle phrase that harkens back to Nixon’s southern strategy and introduction of the war on drugs. Yet acts of violence, actual rioting, and property destruction were already against the law in ways that could be enforced in Florida. This is a grab for more power, plain and simple. DeSantis couldn’t disrupt those organizing against him without expanding the definition of “violence”, because the vast majority of those engaged in protests were assembling peacefully. Now he has the means to go after everyone who disagrees with him. This is not about “law and order”, this is about repression and silencing the voices of the many to promote the power of the few, veiled under the cover of legality. Too often, what is legal and what is moral run in direct contradiction to each other (see: slavery, Jim Crowe, mass incarceration, drug war, COINTELPRO, etc.), and this law is one more in a long line of transgressions against the people of this nation and the black community in particular.
The demagogues who claim to love America for its “freedom”, which they never define, are all too happy to step on the rights of others as long as their freedom to oppress is upheld. “You are FREE! You are Free… to do as we tell you! You are free to DO AS WE TELL YOU!!”
Well, we say that TRUE freedom is a decent life, a decent education, and communities which are made safe not through the threat of police violence, but through the availability of the resources needed to promote prosperity. DeSantis thinks that criminalizing peaceful assembly will stop this movement, but our vision of freedom is far greater than any repression law, and our movement is only gaining steam. If you believe in a truly FREE and JUST world that does not give power to authoritarians like DeSantis, then join our movement. Get organized, show up, and keep pushing until this vision becomes a reality.
Internal Coordinator, Miami DSA