Governors magnify looting and violence, propose increased penalties for crimes in attempt to silence protesters, gain votes
In late September, Govs. Ron DeSantis (FL-R) and Greg Abbott (TX-R) proposed harsh anti-protest legislation. Critics of the proposals, including Democratic officials, racial justice protesters, and the ACLU, say the move is an attack on Constitutional rights.
Under DeSantis’ “Combatting Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act”, disorderly assembly, obstructing roadways, and toppling monuments would be felonies in the state of Florida. Abbott presented similar legislation at a press conference, stating “Texas is not going to tolerate violence, vandalism or rioting.”
The proposals come after months of mostly peaceful protests for racial justice — and before the general election in November. “Fear mongering at it’s [sic] finest, all for election season too”, tweeted Florida State Rep. Anna Eskamani (D).
“Law and Order” Politics
Fred Piccolo, Jr., a spokesman for Gov. Desantis, tweeted that the proposal had nothing to do with the Black Lives Matter movement. But in an appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight promoting the bill, Desantis referenced protests for racial justice in Minneapolis.
He had this to say to state officials: “Are you for law enforcement and the rule of law or are you gonna stand with the mob? I know where I stand.”
American politicians have long relied on law-and-order rhetoric to stoke racial and cultural anxieties during election season. Notably, Republican President Richard Nixon touted himself as the law-and-order candidate amid widespread racial unrest in his 1968 campaign for re-election, though the actual origins of today’s tough law-and-order policies go back a bit further.
As American cities erupted in protests, President Trump and other prominent GOP figures embraced the strategy. After tweeting for law and order in May, he declared in June, “I am your president of law and order.”
This law-and-order rhetoric has been accompanied by executive and legislative action. In 2017, Trump signed an order reinstating the transfer of surplus military equipment to police. In the summer of 2020, House and Senate Republicans introduced multiple bills that would withhold federal funding from individual protesters and local governments that allow protests.
At the state level, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed an anti-protest law on August 20 making camping on state property and other protest-related offenses a felony.
Florida and Texas appear to be next in line.
Florida Gov. Desantis’ September 21 Proposal
- causing damage or injury during an assembly of more than seven people
- obstructing traffic during a disorderly assembly
- destroying public property, including monuments, during a disorderly assembly
- RICO liability for funding a disorderly assembly
- Other proposals:
- no state funding for local governments that defund police departments
- no liability for drivers who hit protesters if they are fleeing in fear from “a mob”
- no bail until first court appearance for charges related to disorderly assembly
Texas Gov. Abbott’s September 24 Proposal
- causing injury or destroying property in a riot
- striking a police officer, including with bottles or other projectiles
- using lasers to target law enforcement
- blocking hospital entrances
- funding or organizing riots
- Other proposals:
- no bail until first court appearance for charges related to disorderly assembly
Note: in a separate proposal, Gov. Abbott urged legislators to penalize local governments that defund police departments.
It’s up to legislators to introduce the Governors’ plans as official legislation.
In Texas, the state legislative session begins January 12, 2021 — at this point, there are no plans to call a special session. In the meantime, Gov. Abbott has urged local officials to sign his “Back the Blue” pledge.
Gov. Desantis has urged lawmakers to pass the legislation in November during the one-day organizational session that takes place fourteen days after each general election in Florida.
According to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Desantis told reporters he’d discussed his plans with state legislative leaders after a Cabinet meeting September 22. “It’s going to have broad support, certainly from the Republican caucuses in both chambers. It may be something where you need to act.”
At the moment, Republicans hold the majority in the Florida State House and Senate. If passed, the “Combatting Looting” Act could be their last legislation before newly-elected representatives take office in 2021.
Florida Democrats say they will fight “tooth and nail” to prevent the passage of Desantis’ proposed legislation. In a statement, Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said, “This was done in a pathetic ploy to help Trump and Texas Republicans’ election chances. It won’t work.”
A Threat to Civil and Voting Rights
Civil rights advocates worry the rise of anti-protest legislation is a bad sign for free speech.
In a statement, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida Micah Kubic said “Gov. DeSantis’ proposal is undemocratic and hostile to Americans’ shared values. This effort has one goal: silence, criminalize, and penalize Floridians who want to see justice for Black lives lost to racialized violence and brutality at the hands of law enforcement.” Legal Director for the ACLU of Texas Andre Segura said, “Governor [Abbott]’s proposal should raise alarms for every American.”
In addition to protesters’ right to free speech, the increased penalties could also threaten their right to vote. Tennessee’s anti-protest legislation provoked outcry in part because of the state’s felony disenfranchisement law. A protester convicted of felony unauthorized camping would lose the right to vote.
In both Florida and Texas, people convicted of felonies can apply to restore their voting rights after completing their sentences. But high fees keep many from following through in what critics call a “modern day poll tax.”
In Florida in particular, felony disenfranchisement has been a contested issue in the lead-up to the general election. In 2018, 64.5% of Floridians voted to amend the state’s constitution, restoring the right to vote to up to 1.4 million Floridians and nearly one-fifth of the state’s Black population. But the state is fighting to prevent restoration of their voting rights until they pay court-ordered fees and fines.
Anti-protest legislation has chilled, but not stopped, demonstrations. “We still are going out there because we know that this is an issue that we’re willing to put our bodies on the line for, but these new increased repercussions may keep others from coming out,” said Justin Jones, a prominent protester and organizer in Tennessee. “We have to do everything we can to fight against it,” Maxwell Frost, a Florida organizer, told the Orlando Times.
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