Photo credit: Leslie Cross on Unsplash 

The battle for social justice and equality has always had its enemies. Governor Ron DeSantis has chosen to place himself conspicuously in their ranks with his top priority amidst a global pandemic: silencing dissent. 

As of February 2, 26,684 Floridians have died from COVID-19. This public health crisis threatens the public safety, lives, and livelihoods of all Floridians. In contrast, not one person has died in protests around the state demanding an end to police violence against Black people. But Gov. DeSantis, whose handling of the coronavirus epidemic has been abysmal by any measure, is continuing to breed political division in an attempt to distract Floridians from his own failure to keep them safe from the virus. He wants Floridians to forget about the more than 26,000 people who have died on his watch, the pain and suffering of loved ones and family members, the chaos Floridians met when they tried to receive unemployment benefits, and the inexcusable delays in vaccine distribution. The Governor wants the public to fear peaceful protesters instead of his own reckless indifference to the virus and its impact on Floridians. Let’s be clear: nonviolent protests are not killing people — ignoring COVID is killing people. 

Instead of swiftly proposing legislation to deal with the public health and safety issues surrounding COVID, DeSantis has made it his top priority to pass legislation that would silence individuals most directly impacted by the virus’ devastation — communities of color. DeSantis does not like people expressing their dissent because it makes him and his failed policies look bad. He dislikes it so much that he is proposing legislation that would mandate harsher criminal penalties against people exercising their First Amendment rights to protest and peaceably assemble. 

DeSantis, in a shameful attempt to garner bipartisan support for his anti-racial justice legislation, now wants to fool Floridians into thinking his legislation is a response to the violent insurrection by white supremacists at the U.S. Capitol building on January 6. We are old enough to remember he proposed this legislation last September as a campaign political stunt in direct response to the Black Lives Matter movement. 

The Governor wants the public to fear peaceful protesters instead of his own reckless indifference to the virus and its impact on Floridians.

Under his anti-protest bill (HB 1/SB 484), any person who participates in a peaceful protest that turns violent (through no fault of their own) could be arrested and charged with a third-degree felony — that means a peaceful protester could lose their right to vote and be locked up in a cage for five years because they attended an otherwise peaceful protest where other people did something wrong. If they were one among ten protestors, they could face up to 15 years in prison, the same as someone charged with sexual assault. There is nothing more chilling to speech than the prospect of being locked up for merely speaking your values. 

Additionally, the bill actually incentivizes violence against protesters by creating an affirmative defense for vigilantes to avoid civil liability damages when they kill or injure protesters, by driving into us, shooting us, or otherwise assaulting us. Shielding counter-protesters from civil liability when they kill or injure protesters would undoubtedly lead to more violence and embolden white nationalists and other racists — it’s a civil license to kill protesters.  

But it doesn’t stop there. It also holds people in jail without the possibility of bail, which deters people from peacefully protesting altogether. 

But it doesn’t stop there. In a direct affront to the millions calling for racial equality, the bill protects confederate monuments and other shrines to white supremacy by subjecting anyone who pulls down a confederate flag to a felony conviction, disenfranchisement, and up to 15 years in prison. 

But it doesn’t stop there. Against Floridian’s values of local control in one of the country’s most diverse states, the bill prohibits local governments from deciding how much of their stretched budget should be allocated to law enforcement versus education or public health.  It creates an avenue for anyone to mount a political challenge to local budget decisions, forcing local municipalities to spend their limited time and resources defending locally informed decisions.

And these are just a few of the proposal’s atrocities.

At this particular moment in history, when the country is crying out for racial justice, trying to make anyone more afraid of political dissent than they are of COVID-19 is not just cynical but dangerously irresponsible. True leaders welcome dissent. That Gov. DeSantis' response to peaceful protesters advocating for racial justice is to propose legislation making it easier to arrest and imprison Black and brown people and take away their right to vote perfectly demonstrates how structural racism thrives within our criminal legal system. 

But DeSantis' proposal is dangerous on another level as well. It threatens our very democracy. Our nation’s long, painstaking struggle for freedom has often been spearheaded by peaceful protesters. 

In the fight for racial justice and equality, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the 1960s became law only after years of peaceful protests. Unfortunately, those protests, like today’s, were violently suppressed by law enforcement and vigilantes. We all have seen the photos of authorities laying siege to Black people standing at the forefront of the movement for equality.

Throughout U.S. history, people have taken to the streets to campaign for labor rights, reproductive justice, indigenous land rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, climate change, police reform, religious liberty, and to oppose unjust wars. 

In many of these instances, the protesters were initially seen as radicals, only to have mainstream America eventually rally to their causes. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., revered today as pivotal for our nation’s growth, was arrested for protesting and roundly rejected in his time. Protesters often serve as the conscience of our country, the ones who make the rest of us think critically about what our government is doing and what should and shouldn’t persist in a democracy.

That is no less true today, as the Black Lives Matter Movement demands an end to police violence against Black communities. Under current Florida law, we’ve seen peaceful protesters, outnumbered by officers in full riot gear, arrested. Law enforcement has more than enough tools at their disposal to arrest individuals for violence and property damage. The issue is how they selectively use and abuse these tools. Therefore, this bill is not about public safety. It’s about criminalizing peaceful protesters advocating for racial justice. 

This bill is not about public safety. It’s about criminalizing peaceful protesters advocating for racial justice. 

Gov. DeSantis’ proposal is no great innovation – it is only the latest in a recent spate of official acts attempting to stifle protest around the country. Americans protesting not just police violence but immigration bans against Muslims and the laying of oil and gas pipelines through sacred Native American lands have been met with anti-protest bills around the country.

Regardless of one’s political ideology or beliefs, we should all be alarmed when our government tries to infringe on the First Amendment right to free speech and crack down on peaceful protests. An attack on one person’s right to protest is an attack on all of us. 

Stifling speech because the government doesn’t like the message is antithetical to our democracy. The Constitution firmly protects protests even when – and especially when – they challenge government policy, and express dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Gov. DeSantis’ proposal is undemocratic and hostile to Americans’ shared values. Its goal is to silence, criminalize, and penalize Floridians who have the audacity to demand justice for Black lives lost to racialized violence and brutality at the hands of law enforcement.

Throughout his tenure in office, Gov. DeSantis has ignored and undermined the will of Florida’s voters. This is yet another instance where, rather than listening to Floridians and hearing their cries for relief from biased policing and systemic racism, Gov. DeSantis has chosen to respond to this moment by proposing an undemocratic and unconstitutional bill that would chill free speech and instill fear into people who have been fighting against injustice. 

 The Constitution firmly protects protests even when – and especially when – they challenge government policy, and express dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Instead of addressing violence at the hands of police, DeSantis wants to throw more people into our broken and racist criminal legal system. This proposal creates excessively harsh penalties that will be disproportionately levied against Black and brown Floridians. Governor DeSantis, the Senate President, and the Speaker of the House know that the effects of this proposal will be predominantly borne on the backs of people of color, and they are doing it anyway. It’s one thing to play cheap politics to get some votes — it’s another when those decisions destroy lives and fuel our broken criminal legal system. 

The bottom line is that this proposed legislation is fundamentally hostile to American values. Peaceful protesting is, and always has been, an indispensable part of our democracy’s history. It’s what makes us a democratic nation and not an Authoritarian regime. 

Make no mistake: we will not stop fighting until every Black life matters. 

Any Floridian who respects our country’s history and the right to dissent should let their legislators know that DeSantis’ proposal (HB 1/SB 484) violates one of our most fundamental rights.