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Florida's Capitol building in Tallahassee

Florida Republicans push ‘anti-riot’ legislation, but state Democrats say it's designed to squash free speech 

A renewed vigor was given this week to Gov. Ron DeSantis' call to crack down on violent protests, as the world watched an unhinged mob of supporters of President Donald Trump storm and occupy the U.S. Capitol in a failed attempt to subvert the counting of states' electoral votes.

The "Combatting Public Disorder" proposal was rolled out as state lawmakers prepare to return to Tallahassee for the first of five committee weeks in advance of the 2021 legislative session, which begins March 2.

The anti-riot legislation was released as many Republicans in Florida condemned the violence in Washington, D.C., without directly casting blame.

Last Wednesday's actions were "totally unacceptable," DeSantis told reporters the following Thursday.

"It doesn't matter what banner you are flying under. The violence is wrong. The rioting and the disorder is wrong. We are not going to tolerate it in Florida," he said, adding that he hopes his anti-riot proposal will get "even more support" following the Jan. 6 uprising.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who did not support objections to certifying the votes in Arizona and Pennsylvania, said that most of the people who traveled to Washington to rally for President Donald Trump "did not barge into the Capitol."

"But 1 percent of thousands of people is a lot of people. Some of them unfortunately were adherents to a conspiracy theory and others got caught up in the moment. The result was a national embarrassment," he said in a Fox News interview the day after the riots.

U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, a former Florida governor who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, voted against the results from Pennsylvania.

In a prepared statement issued before last Wednesday's vote, Scott said Pennsylvania enacted election policies "in direct conflict with its own state Constitution."

After being escorted from the House and Senate chambers and whisked to secure locations, U.S. representatives and senators early Thursday morning certified the election results showing President-elect Joe Biden as the winner.

Biden called Wednesday's actions "a dark moment" in the nation's history.

DeSantis, who in early December urged Trump to "fight on" to overturn November's election results, first introduced the effort to crack down on violent protests weeks ahead of the presidential election, as the country was roiled by protests sparked by disparate treatment of Black people by police.

Then House Speaker Chris Sprowls (R-Palm Harbor) and Senate President Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby) released their version of the proposal last Wednesday evening, after rioters barged into the U.S. Capitol. The legislation would create a new offense of "mob intimidation" when three or more individuals act "with a common intent, to compel or induce, or attempt to compel or induce, another person by force, or threat of force, to do any act or to assume or abandon a particular viewpoint."

The identical bills would also enhance penalties for defacing public monuments, make it a crime to destroy a memorial, and require mandatory restitution for the full cost of repair or replacement of damaged or destroyed memorials.

The plan would also do away with bail or bond for people involved in violent protests and let citizens challenge reductions in local law-enforcement budgets. It would also make a crime of "doxing," the posting of private information about people on social media sites, when such data is published with the intent to "threaten, intimidate, harass, incite violence ... or place a person in reasonable fear of death or great bodily harm." Also, the proposal would make it more difficult for local government officials to trim spending on law enforcement.

The House and Senate proposal, however, does not go as far as the plan floated by DeSantis last year, which would have expanded the state's "stand your ground" law, while including violent protests to crimes involving racketeering.

Florida Democrats remain unconvinced that the effort is necessary, and Florida Democratic lawmakers excoriated the proposals, saying it's designed to quash voices of Black and Brown people.

"We know, from lifetimes of experiences, who this will harm ... communities of color, Black and Brown Floridians. This is calculated political opportunism," House Minority Co-leader Bobby DuBose (D-Fort Lauderdale) said during a video conference with reporters.

"Any attempt to imply that this hateful and discriminatory legislation would be justly applied to the rioters in Washington, D.C., is absurd," Sen. Bobby Powell (D-West Palm Beach) said in a prepared statement last Thursday. "Make no mistake, the repackaging of these bills as a 'response to the violent mobs of yesterday' is a smoke screen for control measures aimed solely at peaceful protestors in Florida who sought nothing more than the basic civil rights and human dignity guaranteed to all people under the Constitution. These bills give safe harbor to deep prejudices held by people intent on retaining power and diminishing the value of human life on the basis of skin color alone."

DeSantis and the GOP leaders say the legislation would protect Florida from similar mob revolts.

"It doesn't matter what banner you are flying under. The violence is wrong. The rioting and the disorder is wrong. We are not going to tolerate it in Florida," DeSantis said last Thursday, adding that he hopes the proposal will get "even more support" following Wednesday's uprising, which resulted in the deaths of at least five people.

But Democratic lawmakers said linking the crackdown on protests with the assault on the Capitol was a ruse.

"This bill has been rebranded. The governor's office is now saying it is in response to that. Now this is just a blatant attempt to obfuscate their own responsibility for that violence that occurred," Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer (D-Lighthouse Point) said.

"This bill is overkill, designed to squash free speech and peaceful assemblies, primarily by people of color. Should it become law, it threatens to tread on those same liberties for every other group that the governor and the government disagrees with, down the line," Sen. Perry Thurston (D-Fort Lauderdale) said.

Democrats noted that, unlike in other areas of the country, rallies in Florida did not turn violent last summer when protesters began gathering following the death of George Floyd. Floyd died after a Minnesota police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

The Florida proposal "would be absolutely deadly to our communities," DuBose said.

"As a father, trying to raise four young Black men and boys in this state, this terrifies me," he added.

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