The Right to Protest: For Some And Not For Others

How Florida’s new “anti-riot’” bill is selectively applied for different protesters

On 13 July, scores of protesters shut down a section of the Palmetto Expressway in Miami, Florida in an act of support for the anti-government protests occurring across the bay in Cuba. In blocking a highway, the protest clearly violated one of the citable offences in the new “anti-riot” bill passed by Florida’s governor, Republican Ron DeSantis. However, no arrests or charges were made. The confusing enforcement of this new bill has led to critics calling out the state and police department for arbitrary enforcement of the law. Specifically, many have drawn comparisons to the treatment of protesters from the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and accused law enforcement of disproportionately targeting them.

On Twitter, author and Biblical scholar Wil Gafney remarked that she suspected it would be different if Haitians or BLM protesters of “any race” were in the same situation, tweeting, “that’s who the law was written for.”

The “anti-riot” bill

The so-called “anti-riot” bill was signed off on 29 April by Ron DeSantis. The bill was drafted in response to civil unrest that followed the killing of George Floyd in 2020. The law increases penalties for public disorder crimes. For example, it states that protesters can be arrested and detained without bail if a gathering is considered a riot. Among other measures, it deems blocking highways a felony. Upon its signing, DeSantis declared, “we are not going to let the mob win the day.” He also described the law as “the strongest anti-looting, anti-rioting, pro-law-enforcement piece of legislation in the country.”

The bill received pushback from Democrats who critiqued that it was unfair, vague and disproportionately targeted minorities, specifically African American communities. Critics such as Clément Voule, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association noted that the vague definitions of “riot,” “mob intimidation” and “obstruction” “…provide excessive discretion to law enforcement authorities to intimidate and criminalize legitimate protest activities.” He added that “any restrictions on this fundamental freedom must be narrowly and clearly defined” or risk causing confusion and abuse.

The criminalization of protests

The bill was just one of many passed this year that target the right to protest. According to data cited by American non-profit group, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ALCED), at least 34 of 50 states have introduced bills during the 2021 legislative session aiming to “restrict demonstration activity or to expand legal protections for drivers who strike protesters with their vehicles.” According to Clément Voule, at least 93 anti-protest bills have been introduced in 35 states since May 2020. These legal packages have been primarily pushed by Republican-led states. Despite Democrats leading at the federal level, Republicans still hold 21 trifectas (control of both state house and governorship). This means that Republicans face low opposition at the state level when passing new laws.

ALCED researcher Sam Jones noted that these trends suggest “the main objective of the new legislative push is not to fight violent rioting or even to restrict demonstration activity at large.” Instead, it is to “curtail racial justice mobilization and to enable a more forceful crackdown on future BLM activism.”

Uneven enforcement

Ron DeSantis’ response to the recent events reveals double standards when it comes to policing the different members of his constituency. Of Cuban heritage himself, a key part of his voting bloc is comprised of Cuban-Americans. As expected, DeSantis has been vocal in support of the rallies against the Cuban government. When asked about the protests at a roundtable with reporters, he described the recent demonstrations as “fundamentally different” from last summer’s protests that inspired the law. DeSantis added his belief “that people understand the difference between going out and peacefully assembling, which is obviously people’s constitutional right, and attacking other people or burning down buildings or dragging people out of a car…they are much different situations.”

These comments perpetuate the harmful stereotypes that have dominated conservative media and politics surrounding the BLM movement. The portrayal of the BLM protests over the last year as violent has been used by Republicans to push heavier policing and anti-protesting laws. However, the nationwide demonstrations invoked by George Floyd’s murder were overwhelmingly peaceful. According to The Washington Post, 96% of protests in May and June 2020 involved no property damage or police injury whatsoever.

Furthermore, according to ACLED, 95 percent of pro-BLM demonstrations so far in 2021 have also been peaceful. Notably, their research found that police have responded with force far more often against BLM protester, than with other non-violent demonstrations. When intervening, authorities have used force 37% of the time against peaceful pro-BLM protesters, compared to under 20% against other peaceful protesters around the country.

The pandemic era has been marked by protests. However, we have also seen a parallel increase in restrictions on the right to protest. The attack on this right is worrying in of itself. More concerning still, is that the “anti-riot” bill appears to target one demographic’s right to protest more than others. The protests in support of Cuban demonstrators that occurred on the thirteenth of July should have taken place. Everyone has a right to protest peacefully. However, everyone has a right to protest peacefully, not select populations. The uneven enforcement of the new “anti-riot” bill evidences how sloppy law-making can serve political and prejudiced purposes.

Rafaela Alford
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