When protesters took to the streets of Florida this week to show solidarity with anti-government protesters in Cuba, closing a major stretch of a highway and blocking streets in cities across the state, some eyes turned to Governor Ron DeSantis.
DeSantis, a possible candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, has enacted a measure that increases sanctions against protesters this year – including a provision that criminalizes blocking certain roads during protests.
HB 1, dubbed the “riot law” by supporters, was introduced during last summer’s racial justice protests following the death of George Floyd, when some law enforcement officers arrested Black Lives Matter protesters or sprayed them with tear gas.
But as protesters gathered in Miami, Tampa and Orlando this week, officers generally appeared to exercise restraint, apparently making only a handful of arrests. In the eyes of David Winker, a defense attorney who represented the Black Lives Matter protesters, the double standard was clear.
“I applaud the police for being stealthy and not arresting everyone, but I want the same energy to continue when protesters have more melanin in their skin,” Winker said, adding that he opposed HB 1 and supported the anti-government movement in Cuba. .
“The double standard was exposed because DeSantis specifically mentioned the issue of road closures” when he signed HB 1 in April, Winker said.
Winker was referring to DeSantis’ wish that there would be “quick penalties” for protesters who disrupt traffic.
“You drive home from work and all of a sudden you have people closing a freeway,” DeSantis said. “We’ve made sure that doesn’t happen in Florida. They’re starting to do it, and there has to be quick sanctions. It’s something that just can’t happen.”
The text of the law itself, officially known as the Combating Public Disorder Act, prohibits people “from willfully obstructing the gratuitous, practical and normal use of any street, highway or public highway” and subjects offenders to tickets of $ 15.
The law includes other measures that have drawn criticism in Florida, including tougher penalties for protesters who turn violent and new criminal penalties for those who stage protests that get out of hand.
HB 1 also grants legal immunity to people crossing demonstrators blocking roads.
The American Civil Liberties Union condemned HB 1. In an April statement, Micah Kubic, the organization’s Florida branch executive director, denounced what he said was the real motivations behind the law.
“Let’s be clear: this is not a riot bill, no matter what supporters say. It is a bill that criminalizes peaceful protests, and the impact HB1 will have on Floridians cannot be challenged. Each provision refers to Jim Crow, “Kubic said.
The anti-government movement in Cuba, motivated in part by fury at poor economic conditions, has gripped much of Florida in recent days, home to a large and vibrant Cuban population that traditionally sides with the Republican Party in presidential elections. .
The protests over Cuba have not been entirely calm. Tampa police have arrested three men involved in a protest at Al Lopez Park, two of whom were charged with assaulting a law enforcement officer, according to a police statement.
In remarks from Miami on Tuesday, DeSantis appeared to dismiss comparisons between the black life movement and the protests over the situation in Cuba.
“These are people who are rebelling against a Communist dictatorship,” DeSantis said, adding that the protests in Miami were “fundamentally different from what we saw last summer.”
But some Floridians linked to the Black Lives Matter movement say DeSantis’ public rhetoric is an example of hypocrisy.
“When they protest for regime change, which fits the governor’s political point of view… you don’t see any enforcement from law enforcement,” Jacksonville co-founder Michael Sampson told The Associated Press. Community Action Committee.
“I think it’s just outright hypocrisy that we see from the governor and even law enforcement in the way they enforce this law. It shows how much of our fears we had. sooner… that it will be used against black people who are fighting for equal rights, ”Sampson said.
DeSantis spokeswoman Christine Pushaw commented on Wednesday in a tweet from her personal account.
“The left and corporate aligned media love authoritarianism. Therefore, they are FURIOUS that the Governor of Florida did not personally drive 500 miles around the state to arrest people for protesting (not riots) against the Communist regime in Cuba, ”Pushaw tweeted.
In an email, Pushaw said in part that DeSantis signed HB 1 to “strengthen law enforcement in their own jurisdictions, giving local and state law enforcement agencies another tool in their box. tools to protect and serve the people of Florida “.
“The legislation protects First Amendment freedoms, while ensuring that law enforcement professionals are empowered to use their discretion to maintain public safety,” she said. “The governor has always urged all Floridians exercising their right to protest to make their voices heard in a peaceful and legal manner.”
She said blocking or obstructing roads without a permit “has long been illegal” under Florida law and that law enforcement agencies across the state have “the discretion to enforce Florida law in a way that ensures the safety of all motorists and pedestrians ”.
State Senator Shevrin Jones, a Democrat, told the Miami Herald that he believes HB 1 should be repealed.
Jones, who is black, told the newspaper that the possibility that the law will not be widely enforced this week indicates that it was “for people who look like me.”
The debate parallels the one that followed the riots on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, when social justice activists questioned whether the law enforcement response would have been the same if pro-Trump protesters had been predominantly black or brown.