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Northeast Florida Senators Weigh In On Governor’s Protesting Legislation

State Senator Audrey Gibson with her hand raised, a pen is in her hand, at the Florida Capitol.
Via News Service of Florida
Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson (D-Jacksonville)

State senators Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, and Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, are split on their reaction to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposal this week to create harsher penalties for people who participate in “disorderly assemblies” and cities that “slash” law enforcement budgets.

DeSantis introduced the bill Monday in Polk County.

“I think what it is saying is we’re not going to let Florida go down the road where some of these places have gone,” DeSantis said, referring to protests this summer that have been accompanied by rioting, looting and violence against both protesters and police officers.

Although the bill can’t be officially filed for consideration until after the November 3 election, DeSantis’ office released a summary of what it would entail.

The legislation would create new criminal offenses for people participating in disorderly assemblies and rioting and add length to sentences for penalties already in place for striking a law enforcement officer and traveling from out of state to participate in a disorderly assembly.

It would also prohibit state grants or aid to local governments that cut law enforcement budgets  — though DeSantis hasn’t specified how much of a cut would trigger the prohibition  — as well as restrict bail opportunities for people charged with participating in a violent assembly, and allow victims of crimes during disorderly assemblies to sue local governments.

Gibson, who is the Florida Senate minority leader, believes the entire proposal is unconstitutional.

“We do not have a law and order problem in Florida,” Gibson said. “There's not an issue there.”

To Gibson, the proposal is an example of DeSantis’ commitment to President Donald Trump’s rhetoric of lawlessness and chaos when referring to the nationwide protests against police brutality and racial inequities.

“It's all about trying to galvanize people for Trump and to make it look like anyone who is not a Trump supporter is a law breaker, is a rioter, and a looter,” Gibson said.

If local governments would like to cut law enforcement budgets, Gibson said that should be their right to do so.

“Maybe the [police] force is not as large as it was last year,” Gibson said. “Maybe there's some equipment that is not needed from last year. So if that is cut out, and that money remains in the general revenue pot, the cities and counties have every right to utilize the dollars that their constituents send to the city, because it's all public money. That's one thing the governor needs to understand — his salary is public money, too.”

Gibson said the governor should be focusing on other issues, like COVID-19-related health disparities, state unemployment numbers, and keeping bar and restaurant capacities low to prevent the further spread of coronavirus.

On the other hand, Sen. Bean feels the proposal is DeSantis’ planning ahead before violence becomes rampant in the state.

“We all love the protesters because that's one of the fundamental rights in our Constitution,” Bean said. “But when you go further to destroy or hurt people or property, then we need protection.”

Damaging property and attacking people are already crimes, yes, but Bean said he supports the harsher penalties and added threat of losing state money.

“This legislation is going to give (DeSantis) a tool to hopefully continue to keep our state safe, as well as saying to all communities that if you wish to defund (police), then there's going to be consequences for not giving law enforcement the tools it needs to keep our citizens safe,” Bean said.

Some state Democrats, including Gibson, are calling the proposal government overreach, but Bean said it's necessary.

“When your city is burning, no one's going to be complaining about government overreach,” he said.

DeSantis said he hopes to make the legislation a “focal point” of the next state legislative session that begins in March 2021.

Former WJCT News reporter