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Community organizer says riot bill will target nonviolent protesters

Posted at 7:04 PM, Mar 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-17 19:04:36-04

LEE COUNTY, Fla. — Chantel Rhodes is a community organizer, known locally for leading the nonviolent protests in Fort Myers after the killing of George Floyd last year.

She’s against Florida Senate Bill 484: "Combating Public Disorder."

“It’s going to discourage peaceful protesters like myself from exercising their first amendment right,” she said.

The bill as it stands now would enhance penalties for crimes committed during protests - like blocking roadways. There’s also a "Mob Intimidation" penalty if three or more people incite and carry out violence.

Many Florida legislators like Representative John Snyder (R) are backing the bill.

"There's a fine line between Peaceful protest and the right to assembly, and violence and rioting and it's when you cross that line that you pay a penalty and go to jail,” he said.

Rhodes says even though the bill is aimed at rioters, there’s a lot of room to criminalize protesters.

“What would happen according to this bill - if I got mixed up, or they were standing anywhere near me, I would be taken into custody,” she said.

But, Pam Seay, Professor of Justice Studies at Florida Gulf Coast University says the specifics of the bill, like the banning of blocking roadways could protect everyone.

“What if there’s an ambulance that needs to get by? What if there’s someone who’s life is in danger who needs to get immediate assistance?” she asked.

Rhodes also said the timing of the bill is problematic.

“It is not a bill that was in response to the insurrection that we saw take place at our Nation’s Capitol on January 6th. However, this legislation was introduced last summer in response to the Black Lives Matter Movement,” she said. “It seeks to silence the voice of those who are speaking out in disagreement to racial injustice, to police brutality.”

The bill isn’t cheap, either. The sentence for a burglary during a riot goes from five years in prison to fifteen years. According to the Florida Policy Institute, it’ll cost the Department of Corrections $1.3 million to house three prisoners for fifteen years instead of a little less than $400,000 for a five-year sentence. They say that money could be spent on local budgets instead.