Gov. Ron DeSantis must have plenty of time on his hands. How else do you explain — with Florida gripped in a pandemic, the tourist economy reeling and key parts of the state still half-shuttered — him parachuting into Polk County to declare open season on “disorderly assemblies?” Is Florida burning? Have the laws against rioting been repealed? Or is this exactly what it seems — the Republican governor doing a solid for his patron by indulging in a taxpayer-subsidized political stunt for Donald Trump?
DeSantis and two of the state’s top Republican leaders rubbed shoulders with law enforcement Monday to announce a crackdown on violent protests. Speaking at the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, DeSantis called for a law in the 2021 legislative session that would hand felony penalties to protesters who block traffic without a permit and to those who gather in small groups at events that result in injuries or property damage. DeSantis said the measure would be a “focal point” of the legislative session that begins in March, and he also vowed to withhold state funding from any local government “that slashes the budget for law enforcement.”
This is a solution in search of a problem. Though protests against police violence against Black Americans have become violent in some cities since demonstrations erupted across the country this summer, the protests across Florida and the Tampa Bay area have been largely peaceful. The rioting and looting that broke out in north Tampa the weekend after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police was an outlier for the state and the Tampa Bay region. And while tumultuous protests have continued in some parts of the country, Florida has been spared this kind of unrest, thanks in part to the ongoing dialogue between activists, authorities and community leaders.
That didn’t stop DeSantis from showboating Monday, which was less about what was happening on the streets than what’s happening in the polls between now and Nov. 3. Trump is ginning up his base for reelection by depicting America as awash in flames. And DeSantis is playing his part. His proposal even calls for public employees convicted of participating in a disorderly assembly to be fired and lose their benefits. And it grants criminal immunity to a driver who causes a serious injury or death while fleeing from a “mob.”
State law and local ordinances already outlaw everything from protesters blocking a street to anyone destroying property, inciting violence or striking a law enforcement officer. If DeSantis and legislative Republicans wanted to be constructive, they would have joined hands with mayors, police chiefs, prosecutors, community leaders and activists — including in the Tampa Bay area — who are doing the hard work to find common ground in this search for racial justice.
That’s not the point here, of course. The measure is so sloppily written and over the top — essentially making a constitutionally-protected event a legalized killing ground — it stands to be a boon for trial lawyers. We don’t figure it’ll come to that. This is about what happens in November. Come March, this legislation, like a miracle, will likely just fade away.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news