TALLAHASSEE — Dozens of people supporting the growing anti-government protests in Cuba clogged one of Miami’s busiest highways all afternoon and well into rush hour Tuesday, a show of solidarity that could put them in violation of a new law championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The new law, known as the “anti-riot” law, is clear: A person shall be cited for a pedestrian violation if they “willfully obstruct the free, convenient, and normal use of a public street, highway or road.” For instance, if a person stands or remains on a street, highway or roadway, they would be in violation of a section in state laws that would subject them to a $15 traffic citation.
But so far, none of the protesters who began marching on Coral Way and 87th Avenue around 11:30 a.m. and later blocked the Palmetto Expressway, between 1:30 p.m. and at least 5:30 p.m., have faced pedestrian violations, authorities say.
The mandate for a pedestrian citation, however, is part of a broader measure that DeSantis signed into law in April that is largely focused on enhancing criminal penalties for crimes committed during protests that turn violent or “disorderly.” The measure was one of DeSantis’ top legislative priorities and it was approved by the Republican-led Legislature nearly a year after protests broke out across the state and nation following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Troopers with the Florida Highway Patrol, which has jurisdiction over the Palmetto Expressway, and Miami-Dade police officers assisting at the scene, have shut down the highway in both directed and re-routed traffic as the protesters continue to block the roadway.
While Miami demonstrations in support of Cuba have remained peaceful, protesters could potentially face felony charges under the new “anti-riot” law if the gatherings turn violent, disorderly or result in property damage.
The state law, for instance, says a person commits a riot — a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison — if he or she “willfully participates in a violent public disturbance involving an assembly of three or more persons, acting with a common intent to assist each other in violent or disorderly conduct” that results in injury or damage to property.
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If that assembly gets bigger, the penalties could get stiffer.
Under state law, any person commits “aggravated rioting” if they congregate with 25 people or more and cause property damage in excess of $5,000, cause great bodily harm to a bystander, or “endangers the safe movement of a vehicle traveling on a public street, highway, or road” either by force or threat. An aggravated rioting charge is a second-degree felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Sen. Danny Burgess, a Zephyrhills Republican who sponsored the bill, in April said that it would be up to law enforcement officers on the scene to determine whether crimes should be enhanced as a result of being facilitated by a riot.
“It’s a fact-specific circumstance on the scene,” Burgess said at the time, when the measure was being vetted by state lawmakers.
When asked about the possibility of penalties against protesters in Miami, the governor’s office on Tuesday said DeSantis “empowered local law enforcement” when he signed the bill into law.
“We’re going to let local enforcement do their jobs,” DeSantis’ spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said in an email.
The Republican governor has been adamant in his support for the people in Cuba, where protests throughout the island have been going on for a third day. During a roundtable discussion on Tuesday with Republican lawmakers and members of the Cuban exile community in Miami, DeSantis said he wants Florida companies to provide internet service to residents in Cuba.
But many of the governor’s critics have repeatedly pointed to the state’s “anti-riot” law, or House Bill 1, to draw comparisons on how Florida would treat similar protests if they happened in the state.
State Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat, posted on Twitter that the law pushed by the governor was “motivated as a means to silence racial justice protests.” State Rep. Omari Hardy, D-West Palm Beach, also posted on Twitter that the protests in Cuba would be “labeled an ‘aggravated riot’ under Gov. Ron DeSantis’ anti-protest law.”
The governor and his staff, however, have pushed back against those characterizations.
“HB 1 is specifically an anti-RIOT bill, and it differentiates between riots and peaceful protests,” Christina Pushaw, a DeSantis spokeswoman, posted on Twitter.
When asked about protesters shutting down the highway in Miami on Tuesday, DeSantis sidestepped the question and said what is going on in Cuba is different from protests that take place in the United States.
“What is going on in Cuba in particular, those are not simply normal, run-of-the-mill protests like we see here in the United States. They don’t have freedoms respected there, whereas in the United States, you have a panoply of freedoms that are respected,” DeSantis said. “They are seeking an end to the regime itself.”
He added: “They are trying to end the regime. So that is fundamentally different from what we saw last summer where people were burning down buildings — and this was fortunately not happening in Florida to a large extent — burning down buildings, looting, breaking windows and targeting law enforcement and all those things.”