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  1. Opinion

DeSantis’ new ‘stand your ground’ would provoke the danger it professes to prevent | Column

Criminalizing public protest and empowering armed vigilantes would create a dangerous, volatile mix, writes a Harvard professor.

Let’s begin by parsing the grammatically confounding title of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ aggressive legislative idea. He calls it the “Combating Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act.” That’s not what it would do. In reality, it would amplify the danger it professes to prevent.

Nor would it combat violence. Instead, it would expand the state’s stand your ground law. Neither would it stem disorder. Rather, it would limit the ability of citizens to demonstrate in the streets.

Caroline Light
Caroline Light [ Provided ]

Among its “innovations” are enhanced immunities for police and civilian violence alongside tough financial penalties for localities trying to defund or reconfigure their police forces. It would outlaw forms of social protest that have long been protected as free speech, while criminalizing those who “obstruct or interfere with the regular flow of vehicular traffic.”

At the heart of the state’s original stand your ground legislation was an effort to “flip the script” on cause and effect, target and aggressor, by framing the victims of violence as perpetrators, and the perpetrators as self-defenders.

The new proposal — which could become state law if it finds sponsorship and is approved by both chambers — features multiple elements that at first glance appear disparate. But, actually, they intersect in limiting a person’s right to occupy public space, the “ground” to which the original 2005 Florida law refers. For those gathering to protest racial injustice, the legislation would eliminate the ground on which they may safely stand.

DeSantis proposes to criminalize assemblies of seven or more people that damage property or “obstruct law enforcement or other governmental functions or services.” Property damage would include “pulling down, destroying, or defacing public property, including but not limited to a monument or statue.” Sound familiar? On June 26, President Donald Trump issued an executive order to “Protect American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues and Combat Recent Criminal Violence” from “rioters, arsonists, and left-wing extremists.” DeSantis’ proposal targets those who would dismantle or deface Confederate memorials. Florida boasts more than 60 of them.

The numerical limitation on assemblies echoes post-Civil War “Black Codes,” curtailing Black freedom of movement, employment and assembly. Georgia’s 1866 penal code forbid “assemblies of over seven persons” amongst freed people. Characterizing the Black Lives Matter protests as “riots” and “mobs” places blame for social disorder on to the shoulders of those most subjugated by entrenched violence and marginalization. It’s a role-reversal with deep historic roots, where victims become perpetrators and perpetrators shape-shift into victims.

This role-reversal frames DeSantis’ efforts to depict unarmed protesters as criminals, so that they appear as reasonable targets for civilian violence. His proposal would provide legal immunity to a driver who “causes injury or death to a person who obstructs or interferes with the regular flow of vehicular traffic,” opening the door to vehicular violence like that responsible for Heather Heyer’s death at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, and more than 100 occasions since March 2020 in which motorists have driven into groups of protesters. The proposal suggests that anyone who commits vehicular homicide against demonstrators and claims that it was accidental is “not liable for such injury or death.”

The legislation would amend the state’s existing stand your ground law by providing immunity to armed citizens who claim to be protecting property from “looters” and “mobs,” where “looting” is defined as “criminal mischief that results in the interruption or impairment of a business operation.” Florida laws already empower citizens to defend themselves and their own businesses, but DeSantis’ expansion would allow other people to use violence to protect businesses that don’t even belong to them.

Like the popular “you loot, we shoot” memes that surface during hurricanes and tornadoes, Florida’s stand your ground law invites armed aggression under the guise of protecting property. We witnessed the consequences of such logic in Kenosha, Wisc., where a white 17-year-old armed with an AR-15 crossed state lines in response to a social media entreaty for “patriots… to take up arms and defend our city tonight from evil thugs.” Under the mantle of “patriotism,” the young gunman joined a group of armed civilians to “defend” the city from protesters, killing two unarmed people and injuring another. Afterward, he claimed to have acted in self-defense.

This capacity to claim self-defense after a lethal encounter is the key innovation of the stand your ground laws that originated in Florida and rapidly spread to more than half the states. If the governor’s recommended legislation passes, the law would allow an armed aggressor to kill in the course of upholding “law and order” or “protecting property.” By deflecting responsibility for instigating a deadly encounter, even if one’s target was unarmed, it would elevate property over human life.

In the lethal logic of stand your ground, the killer’s perception of threat goes unquestioned if the only other witness is dead. In DeSantis’ proposal, even a crowd of witnesses will be powerless to establish criminal liability when armed citizens claim to be upholding the law against a “violent or disorderly assembly.”

The timing of DeSantis' proposal speaks to this momentous national reckoning, where we can feel the “ground” in which our democracy is rooted shifting under our feet. If approved, the legislation would deputize armed citizens to defend property, while criminalizing those who dare to stand up to systemic violence and racism.

In case it isn’t clear on the surface, the goal is to silence these voices and to undermine the transformative justice demands that have proliferated nationwide. Against this powerful groundswell of public protest, the Florida governor’s proposal stands as a desperate effort to secure a reactionary legacy while obstructing the movement toward justice.

Caroline Light teaches gender and ethnic studies at Harvard University. She is the author of Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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