‘It’s dog-whistle base stuff’: DeSantis launches Trump-styled protest crackdown

Flanked by Republican legislative leaders and law enforcement officials, DeSantis outlined forthcoming legislation he said will create a series of new felonies for those involved in protests that turn violent or cause property damage, and threatens to cut state funding for cities that “defund the police.”

DeSantis, who did not mention Trump during the press conference, acknowledged the timing of the “Combatting Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act” was designed to put “law and order” at the political center in the nation’s largest swing state during the final weeks of a campaign otherwise dominated by Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. While adding fresh fuel to a white-hot presidential contest, DeSantis’ efforts are certain to be used to rattle voters in local legislative races, particularly the Florida Senate, where Democrats need to flip just three seats to secure a 20-20 tie in the chamber.

“You have an obligation to tell others where you stand on this bill,” DeSantis said, announcing the new push the same week mail-in ballots will be sent to Florida voters. “Are you going to stand with victims, are you going to stand with law enforcement, are you going to stand with law and order in these communities, or are you going to stand with the mob?”

The proposal, the first rolled out by DeSantis since the outset of the pandemic, makes it a third-degree felony to be in a gathering of more than seven people that causes injury or damage; a third-degree felony to block traffic during a protest held without a permit; blocks state funding for cities that “defund the police,” and creates a new six-month mandatory minimum jail sentence for anyone who strikes a law enforcement officer during a “disorderly assembly.” It would also, among other things, give legal liability to a driver who is “fleeing for safety from a mob.”

The legislation is not filed, so the definition of things like “mob” and “defund the police,” a broad rallying cry for overhauling law enforcement, are not yet clear.

Calls for policing changes come on the heels of demonstrations that broke out nationwide after the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white cop in Minneapolis. The protests were led by social justice groups such as Black Lives Matter, and included demonstrations throughout Florida, including in downtown Tallahassee just blocks from the governor’s mansion.

Tallahassee police initially took a light-handed approach toward the protests until an Aug. 29 incident where a counter-protester pulled out a handgun. Then the city cracked down, arresting 17 people who were involved in a protest that unfolded Sept. 5.

Leon County State Attorney Jack Campbell said most of the Tallahassee protesters were peaceful, but other groups were using them as a screen to commit crimes.

“This proposed legislation gives us tools to separate the peaceful from the violent,” Campbell said in an email to POLITICO. “It also establishes the Legislature’s direction that we severely punish those who promote violence through the corruption of these demonstrations.”