Rooting Out The Violence In DeSantis’s Anti-Protest Bill

The looming specter of state-sanctioned violence, in the form of police brutality and extrajudicial killings, is a constant source of tension for communities of color in the United States. Last summer, that tension may have hit a tipping point. Summer 2020 saw a several-month-long series of riots following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, both Black, at the hands of the police. When Breonna Taylor’s murderers were not charged for her death, another surge of riots and violence resulted in the shooting of two police officers. The national response from both police and protestors further solidified a divide in the United States – a divide between the oppressed and the oppressors. Part of that response took the form of an increase in legislated regulations against demonstrations and protests. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has made the latest move in that direction with a heinous anti-protest bill.

The last time Florida introduced a bill like this, in response to 2016 and 2017’s #NoDAPL protests, it was only one of several bills proposed nationally. However, the language in Florida’s bill stood out. While other states included cookie-cutter phrasing protecting vehicle operators from liability relating to injury, only Florida’s included a provision to exclude drivers from liability for death. DeSantis recycled this provision into the new bill he rolled out last week; the summary he released states that the “driver is NOT liable for injury or death caused if fleeing for safety from a mob.” (Emphasis DeSantis’s.) The 2017 bill died in the Florida Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

The current bill comes with eleven points falling under three categories: “New Criminal Offenses to Combat Rioting, Looting and Violence”; “Increased Penalties”; and “Citizen and Taxpayer Protection Measures.” Five points of the bill stand out as the most problematic for protestors’ and activists’ safety.

The first is the Prohibition on Obstructing Roadways, which makes obstructing traffic during an unpermitted protest or violent or disorderly assembly a third-degree felony. This is also the portion of the bill which protects drivers from liability when injuring or killing protestors, opening the potential for someone to weaponize their vehicle against unarmed demonstrators. Furthermore, it opens the potential for police officers to do the same, with a ready-made legal excuse for their actions. Plenty of police officers have already claimed fear of safety to excuse discharging their weapon on unarmed civilians. This section of the bill simply invites both them and civilian vigilantes to do the same with their cars.

The portions of the bill built around discouraging participation in, and support of, future protests – out of fear of their potential to become “violent or disorderly” – focus on the new addition to Florida’s RICO Liability laws and the regulation of government employment and benefits. RICO (Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization) Liability, which was originally designed in the 1970’s to indict people for mob activity, has now been extended to “anyone who organizes or funds a violent or disorderly assembly.” This would give the government power under the RICO act to freeze anyone’s assets if they have been charged with the organization of “violent or disorderly assembly” until they see trial. The potential to have your assets frozen if a protest escalates beyond what the law deems “peaceful” is a daunting deterrent to groups who may normally be supportive of, or involved in organizing, protest movements. Further, the RICO Act can be applied individually. It is not unreasonable to anticipate that this may be applied to individuals who utilize personal funds to crowdfund for precautions around protests, such as bail funds or safety supplies.

This portion of the bill also allows the state to remove benefits (such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP) from people it decides are participating in a “violent or disorderly assembly.” If charged, these people could lose state benefits, as well as the ability to hold government employment at either the state or local level. This effectively removes protesting as an option for anyone who relies on state benefits – a group of people which includes some of those most affected by the systems of oppression which rule our government.

The second section of the bill, titled Increased Penalties, includes the creation of mandatory minimum jail sentences for striking a law enforcement officer. Historically, mandatory minimum sentences have disproportionately affected Black people – since mandatory minimums were instituted for drug offenses in 1986, the number of incarcerated African Americans spiked. The racism currently enshrined in our judicial system ensures that this trend will continue.

The part of the bill which creates the largest potential for continued violence is a point titled “No ‘Defund the Police’ Permitted.” The title is self-evident. This point prohibits defunding police departments – which are already grossly overfunded. The provision would remove state grants or aid to local governments who cut their budgets for law enforcement services.

Bills like DeSantis’s make a poor response to riots and protesting because they do not aim to solve the problem at hand. Instead, they aim to subdue those who are upset over the plague of state-sanctioned violence. Frankly, it is hypocritical for a system to allow murderers masquerading as public servants to go unindicted for their crimes while simultaneously applying these harsh punishments to the communities those so-called public servants consistently attack. Violence begets violence. If our goal is to end the violence which has come as a response to the constant police brutality people of color face in the U.S., further regulating citizens’ behavior is not the answer. Rooting out the original violence’s source – this country’s corrupt system of policing – is the only way. The only step in the right direction is defunding the police.

It has been months since the Minneapolis City Council pledged to defund their police force, and now those councilmembers are going back on their word. They did not understand each other’s intentions when they used the vague and ambiguous phrase “Defund the police.” What Florida, and the rest of America, needs is a commitment to take material steps to defund and disband police departments. The police are not serving their communities in the way their constituents need.

To see why, we can look at the origins of America’s police forces. American police were born from slave patrols (white volunteer groups chasing down Black people to return them to enslavement) and municipal police departments (established by mercantile interests to protect private property). They never were, and never will be, truly about public safety – they are simply an armed and aggressive extension of racial capitalism painted red, white, and blue.

Policing crime has led to a prison system which profits from incarcerated labor. Instead of abiding this de jure slave labor, we should seek to end the necessity for crime: addressing the root causes of behavior we have labeled criminal. Working towards ending the need for theft by establishing universal basic income and universal healthcare. Reducing the potential for domestic violence by providing resources toward safe and free housing for victims and establishing procedures for transformative justice programs. Utilizing crisis counselors, professionals trained in negotiation, and mental healthcare workers in situations of violence to stabilize the situation and disengage from violence, rather than escalate it by bringing more violence in. Providing communities with support networks and better education surrounding consent and emotional care for one another. Learning to value human lives above all else, to live as a community rather than a collection of individuals. This country’s police, born of violence and hatred, can do nothing more than perpetuate violence and hatred. There are better ways to do things. To end the violence, we must remove the police from the system. We must put safety back in the hands of communities.

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