Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday called on demonstrators showing support for Cuban protestors to stop blocking traffic in Florida, a pivot from his previous stance and a nod to the criticism that has been heaped on the state’s new ‘anti-riot’ law in recent days.
DeSantis pushed the ‘anti-riot” bill in the aftermath of last year’s racial justice protests that spread across the nation — and even cited protesters blocking roads as a justification for the measure that includes extra penalties for people accused of participating in riots and violent protests.
But Democrats and other critics of the law — which is being challenged in federal court — accused DeSantis and other Republicans of supporting selective enforcement of the measure. They said the measure was designed to target Black protesters upset with police shootings. But now DeSantis and other GOP leaders are in a difficult position since they support the aims of many of the demonstrators backing Cuba in Miami and elsewhere.
This week, demonstrators blocked major roadways for hours in Miami-Dade County without any reports of arrests or citations. But the Tampa Bay Times reported on Wednesday that two demonstrators in Tampa were held in jail overnight without bail because of a provision in the new law.
On Tuesday, DeSantis sidestepped a question about whether authorities should arrest people blocking roads as part of protests in solidarity with Cuba. Those demonstrations popped up in several cities as Cuban Americans voice their support to Cuban protesters who are demanding an end to the authoritarian regime that has controlled the island nation for the past six decades.
On Thursday, the governor reversed course and said that authorities could not “tolerate” people blocking roads.
“It’s dangerous for you to be shutting down a thoroughfare,” DeSantis said during a press conference with Florida GOP Reps. María Salazar and Carlos Giménez calling on the Biden administration to help restore Internet access to Cuba. “You’re also putting other people in jeopardy. You don’t know if an emergency vehicle needs to get somewhere and then obviously it’s just disrespectful to make people stand in traffic.”
DeSantis repeated his assertion that his ‘anti-riot’ bill was meant to crackdown on violent protesters. But before he made his latest comment, Democrats, who have been harsh critics of the anti-riot bill, accused DeSantis of being hypocritical.
“Gov. DeSantis and his allies are very clearly applying a politically-driven double standard when it comes to the right to peacefully protest and exercise free speech,” said state Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Black Democrat from Miami Gardens. “Supporting humanity should never be an either-or situation that’s driven by ‘what’s good politics.’”
Several Senate Democrats — including Senate Democratic leader Lauren Book — wrote a letter to Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody on Wednesday that asked her to render a legal opinion on what types of protests remain legal with the new law, HB1, in place.
“We are pleased and frankly thankful that the draconian and anti-Democratic measures contained in HB 1 have not been weaponized against those who are peacefully protesting,” states the letter signed by Book and four other Democrats. “I think we can all agree these actions are just and right, that history will say the same, but of course the protection of those who today exercise their passion and purpose must be assured. In the spirit of fighting for justice and liberty for all Floridians, we look forward to your swift response.”
Lauren Cassedy, a spokesperson for Moody, said the office could not comment because it is currently involved in defending the law in court.
Blocking roads were illegal before the new measure, but HB1 removed a portion of the old law that has been declared unconstitutional by the courts. It also created a new charge of “aggravated rioting” that can be charged against someone if they use “force” to endanger the movement of a car traveling on a highway.
Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin (R-Miami), one of the sponsors of the new law, challenged criticisms that it was being unevenly applied. He had seen footage of the demonstrators in Tampa and said they “deserved to be arrested” since it appeared as they were resisting police with violence. He said he had spoken to highway troopers who dealt with a large group blocking the Palmetto Expressway in Miami, and that the crowd began to disperse once police told them that they were engaged in an unlawful assembly.
“I believe in our law enforcement professionals and I believe in their judgment,” said Fernandez-Barquin, whose parents emigrated from Cuba to the United States.
He added that while he sides with those demonstrating in support of Cuban protesters, “the minute a protest for the liberation of Cuba here in Miami turns violent that’s where I stop supporting it. There’s no need for a protest to get violent. You lose the moral high ground.”
But state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican and the only GOP legislator in that chamber to vote against the law, had warned his fellow Republicans about the problems that would come in trying to enforce the measure.
“People gather for all sorts of reasons, they happen spontaneously,” Brandes said on Thursday. “The law doesn’t contemplate the difference.”
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