TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature approved stiffer penalties against violent protesters on Thursday, handing a major legislative victory to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who began campaigning for the measure last year following a summer of turmoil across the country over the killings of Black people by police.
A divided Florida Senate approved a so-called anti-riot bill as the trial of a Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, was underway for the death of George Floyd, a Black man whose death under Chauvin’s knee triggered waves of protests.
The measure was sent to Florida’s Republican governor as new protests erupted this week in a Minneapolis suburb after another fatal police shooting of a Black man.
During weeks of debate, the spirits of the civil rights movement — and the specter of racism — wafted through hearing rooms, as bill opponents invoked the names of civil rights icons, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Can I tell you that this bill is not about racism? Not entirely, I can’t know,” said GOP Sen. Ed Hooper, who joined the Republican majority in advancing the bill to the governor. “But I do believe in my heart that, at the end of the day, we are a nation and a country of law and order.”
When lawmakers introduced the bill earlier this year, some supporters cast it as a response to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by supporters, mostly white, of former President Donald Trump.
But critics debunked that narrative and instead called the legislation an assault against the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as an attempt to curtail the right to free speech and to peaceably assemble.
Indeed, the genesis of the measure dates back to a Sept. 21 press conference held by the governor in which he was joined by Senate President Wilton Simpson and House Speaker Chris Sprowls to condemn the tumults in cities across the country and what he referred to as attacks on law enforcement.