Community advocate worries anti-riot law could bring division if not enforced equally

Published: July 14, 2021 5:55 PM EDT
Updated: July 14, 2021 7:13 PM EDT

Protesters fighting for Cuba in Fort Myers blocked I-75 on Tuesday night.

In Miami, they blocked the Palmetto Expressway.

Both are illegal under Florida’s new anti-riot law but law enforcement stood down. One important section of the anti-riot law grants immunity to people who drive through protesters blocking a road.

Only two people were arrested in Tampa for participating in the protests.

Retired police officer David Thomas, a professor of forensic studies at FGCU and criminal justice expert, said it all comes down to discretion and orders from higher up.

“Every officer has discretion and any arrest he or she makes,” Thomas said. “What you’re going to find out throughout the state is that each chief or sheriff is going to mandate something different from their people.”

In Southwest Florida, the Fort Myers Police Department released a Facebook post reminding people that blocking highways is against the law.

Under the anti-riot law, blocking traffic could warrant as little as a citation or as much as a second-degree felony if someone is charged with aggravated rioting. Aggravated rioting is when 25 or more people greatly harm someone, damage property worth $5,000 or more or endanger the safe movement of a vehicle traveling on a public street, highway or road either by force or threat.

Gov. Ron DeSantis asked the legislature to pass the anti-riot bill after protests broke out due to the murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

But now, DeSantis doesn’t think the law should apply to protesters blocking streets for change in Cuba.

“I think what’s happening in Cuba is these are people who are rebelling against a communist dictatorship,” DeSantis said. “They are not necessarily to be peaceful. They are trying to end the regime. That is fundamentally different than what we saw last summer where people were burning down buildings, and this, fortunately, it wasn’t happening in Florida to any large extent, burning down buildings, looting, breaking windows, targeting law enforcement and all of those things.”

But Chantel Rhodes with Peaceful Protest LeeCounty worries the anti-riot law sets the stage for discrimination and inequality if officers don’t enforce it equally. The Black Lives Matter protests last summer were peaceful in Lee County with no arrests locally.

“I think that it sets the precedence for division because if law enforcement chose not to act, chose not to make any arrests with that particular clause of the bill, but in future protests, they choose to exercise the ability to make those arrests, it could cause division,” Rhodes said.