Republicans have come under heavy fire after approving a bill that grants immunity to motorists who drive through protesters blocking roads.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has come under fire after a Republican-backed “anti-riot” bill passed the State’s senate, granting “civil legal immunity to people who drive through protesters blocking a road”.
The HS Bill 1, passed on Thursday and awaiting Mr DeSantis’ signature, has come as a reaction to the nation’s ongoing protests over police brutality, which have regularly devolved into riots in major cities.
The legislation will also “prevent people arrested for rioting or offences committed during a riot from bailing out of jail until their first court appearance”, introducing a six-month mandatory sentence for assaulting a police officer during a riot.
“This legislation strikes the appropriate balance of safeguarding every Floridian’s constitutional right to peacefully assemble while ensuring that those who hide behind peaceful protest to cause violence in our communities will be punished,” Mr DeSantis said in a statement.
“Further, this legislation ensures that no community in the state engages in defunding of their police.”
The bill also introduced a new crime of “mob intimidation”, which is defined as three or more people “acting with a common intent” to threaten another person into taking a viewpoint against their will.
That particular clause comes after vision of Black Lives Matter activists storming a Washington, DC restaurant and demanding diners to “show solidarity” to their cause went viral in August 2020.
Senator Danny Burgess went in to bat for the Governor, insisting the bill “is about preventing violence” and stressed that it would not be used to protect people who target protesters, but rather those who act in self defence.
But many on the left have expressed outrage.
Senator Perry Thurston, who mentors African-American youths, asked how the bill would deal with young people who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Ms Thurston likened the protests to the youth “expressing themselves”, claiming the majority of people taking to the streets were not there to cause damage.
“Are you comfortable with this bill and me allowing them to go out and express themselves, that they’re not going to find themselves not just in harm’s way, based on your bill, and that they won’t be saddled with criminal convictions?” she asked Mr Burgess during Wednesday’s floor session.
“I’m comfortable with the bill that we have identified the difference between a peaceful protest and one that is not,” Mr Burgess responded. “I think there’s a clear line there, so I don’t believe this will have a chilling effect on those who seek redress through peaceful means.”
Black Voters Matter co-founder and executive director Cliff Albright slammed the Governor, saying the bill was another move to criminalise protests against corrupt police practices.
“For the state to say, ‘We’re going to criminalise your activity. We’re going to criminalise your passion. We’re going to criminalise your protest.’ That’s not what democracy looks like,” Mr Albright said in a video call with reporters.
Protests raged across the US this week as tensions reached boiling point over the shooting death of Daunte Wright, with demonstrators in Minnesota setting fire to a police building.
Police officer Kim Potter fatally shot the 20-year-old African-American man after pulling him over for a traffic violation on Sunday in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota.
Officers learned he was wanted on an outstanding warrant related to a 2019 armed robbery attempt – in which he allegedly choked a woman in her home – and tried to detain him.
Wright attempted to flee, and was shot by Officer Potter.
Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon told reporters the shooting had been “accidental” after Ms Potter mistook her gun for her taser. She has been charged with manslaughter over the killing of Wright and now faces 10 years behind bars.
The veteran police officer was booked under a second-degree manslaughter charge after being taken into custody at 11.30am local time on Wednesday, with charges filed later that day.
“With that responsibility comes a great deal of discretion and accountability. We will vigorously prosecute this case and intend to prove that Officer Potter abrogated her responsibility to protect the public when she used her firearm rather than her taser,” said Imran Ali, Washington County assistant criminal division chief.
“Her action caused the unlawful killing of Mr Wright and she must be held accountable.”