TALLAHASSEE — Florida Democrats on Tuesday said Gov. Ron DeSantis' plan to crack down on protesters is an “election stunt,” setting the stage for a huge political fight six weeks before Election Day.
The proposal, which DeSantis and Republican legislative leaders introduced Monday, calls for a law that would create a series of new felonies for those involved in “disorderly assemblies,” such as blocking traffic without a permit and participating in gatherings that result in injury or property damage.
DeSantis said Florida has not had violent demonstrations, but “reports of unrest” in other parts of the country tied to nationwide protests against racial injustice means state lawmakers should act as soon as November when they meet for their organizational session.
Several Florida Democrats said Tuesday they are ready to fight “tooth and nail” against the proposal, which they called “unconstitutional,” an “outrageous prioritization of a non-issue” and a “fear tactic” to appeal to Republican voters ahead of President Donald Trump’s bid for reelection in November.
“To the governor, with all due respect, you just declared war on our civil rights,” said state Rep. Shevrin Jones, a West Park Democrat who is running for the Florida Senate. “We are prepared to strap up our boots and, in the spirit of John Lewis, get into some good trouble.”
The proposal to crack down on “disorderly assemblies” is the first legislative proposal DeSantis has made since the onset of the pandemic, which has disrupted the lives of millions of Floridians.
“We have not been in Tallahassee to pass a single COVID-19-related relief package from the Legislature since March,” said state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando. “This is an outrageous prioritization of a non-issue and it is obviously political.”
Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami, called on the governor to call a special session ahead of Election Day to force Republicans and Democrats to talk about what he sees as the root cause of the nationwide protests: racial inequality and police brutality.
“They are scared ... to have real, legitimate conversations about racial inequality, racial discrimination and police brutality,” said Braynon, who in June called for a special session along with Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, to address racial inequality in the wake of the protests.
Braynon argued that if the governor really thought violent demonstrations are a looming problem for Floridians, he would call a special session right now rather than after Election Day.
“If he is so concerned about it, let’s do it now. Let’s do it right now,” Braynon said.
Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said the governor’s proposal underscores the “political rhetoric and fear tactics” that voters are tired of, and accused the governor of “using law and order as an election stunt to distract and scare voters.”
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Trump has deployed federal law enforcement personnel on protests in Washington and Oregon, threatened to use the U.S. military, and has often conflated peaceful protesters with violent rioters. Trump has made the issue of “law and order” a top issue in his reelection campaign, which relies on Florida, a key swing state, for a win.
DeSantis, a staunch ally of the president, promoted his proposal in an interview Monday with Fox News' Tucker Carlson, a favorite news personality of the conservative right.
“We want this done as soon as we can get it done. But we are in an election season, and everyone is running for office in Florida in the House and Senate, they gotta take a position on this now,” the governor told Carlson.
When asked who opposed the measure, DeSantis pointed to the “far left.”
Incoming House Speaker Chris Sprowls and incoming Senate President Wilton Simpson, both Republicans, remain non-committal about holding a special session on the governor’s proposal, although in statements they said they supported it.
“If the newly elected Legislature holds a special session, the governor’s plan to protect people, neighborhoods and businesses from lawlessness would absolutely be a priority,” Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, told the Herald/Times.
Simpson echoed that the Senate is expected to make it a priority “if we have a special session.”
Mitch Stone, the president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said Tuesday the proposal “goes too far and is not necessary.”
Stone said non-violent protests would be impacted if the proposal becomes law.
“Parading on streets, assembling at all hours, sit-ins, and other non-destructive activities can be interpreted as violating the laws contemplated by this proposal,” he said. “To suggest that new laws are needed to enhance penalties because something occurs during a protest is a veiled attack on our constitutional rights.”