Jacksonville Activists, Sheriff Respond to Anti-Riot Bill

Apr 20, 2021

A new anti-riot law from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has created harsher penalties for people arrested during protests, but civil rights activists in Jacksonville say that won’t stop their demonstrations. 

“I can assure you, we will continue to protest, march, rally and demonstrate, regardless of any law — any racist law — by this governor’s administration,” said activist Ben Frazier with Jacksonville’s Northside Coalition. 

DeSantis’ anti-riot bill, which he introduced after unrest following the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police last summer, adds harsher penalties for people arrested during protests and gives the police new powers to arrest even peaceful protesters. 

Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams supported the bill, saying in a statement Monday that it affirmed Gov. DeSantis’ support for law enforcement. “Jacksonville, along with the rest of the state, is ready to work together to build stronger bridges of trust and cooperation while maintaining public safety. Public Safety is paramount for everyone in Florida — our families, our neighbors and our businesses,” Williams said. 

The law has drawn fierce opposition from civil rights groups in Florida, including the state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, who said it gave police officers “broad discretion” to decide who is arrested and charged with a third-degree felony for protesting. A third-degree felony is punishable by up to five years in prison or up to five years of probation. Protesters could also be held without bail until their first court appearance, which could mean overnight stays. 

The law also says people who are protesting peacefully can be treated the same as protesters who are engaged in violence. The Northside Coalition’s Frazier says he worries that an outsider or a provocateur not associated with the nonviolent protesters could engage in violent actions, and, in doing so, put peaceful demonstrators at risk of arrest. 

“But we can only tell you what our mission is, what our message is, what our target is,” Frazier said. “And that is to protest, utilizing the grounds of the First Amendment to assemble and to protest, and to do so in a nonviolent fashion.” 

Civil liberties groups are expected to challenge the law in the courts and a court may put an injunction on the law while the suit is pending. A verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin is expected as soon as this week. 

Contact Sydney Boles at sboles@wjct.org, or on Twitter at @sydneyboles.