Cuban protests raise questions over anti-riot law

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Protests erupted across Florida in solidarity with demonstrations in Cuba.

They are the first large-scale protests since the HB1 anti-riot bill was signed into law, and raised questions about its application.

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“We think [HB1] is meant to suppress and repress Black organizers in response to the protests that happened over the summer,” said Monique Sampson, a community organizer with the Jacksonville Community Action Committee.

JCAC is leading the charge alongside the Northside Coalition, which filed an injunction against the law with six total plaintiffs across the state.

”It threatens to criminalize peaceful protesters who are simply exercising their most basic constitutional rights,” Ben Frazier, the founder of the Northside Coalition, said.

The law makes it so that people facing charges for unlawful assembly blocking streets or sidewalks, battery on law enforcement, or resisting arrest will be held without bail.

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Cuban protests in Jacksonville briefly blocked the northbound lanes of Interstate 95 Tuesday. Other protests across the state also blocked major highways, but no arrests have been reported.

In a statement to Action News Jax, Governor DeSantis’ office said he “signed HB 1 to empower law enforcement in their own jurisdictions, giving local and state law enforcement agencies another tool in their toolbox to protect and serve the people of Florida.”

The statement goes on to say, “There is a difference between a protest and a riot, and HB1 is an anti-rioting law. A riot is, by legal definition, violent.

“Rioting” is defined in Florida Statute 870.01 as follows: “A person commits a riot if he or she willingly participates in a violent public disturbance involving an assembly of three or more persons acting with a common intent to assist each other in violent and disorderly conduct.”

The governor’s office stated that the protests in support of the Cuban people have not been violent, “unlike many of the riots in cities around the country last summer.”

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Under Florida law, blocking a road without a proper permit has been illegal before Gov. DeSantis signed HB1 into law, his office said.

”The governor does not tell law enforcement how to do their day-to-day jobs. However, it should go without saying that anyone who breaks the law is subject to arrest.”

The Director of the Florida Highway Patrol, Col. Gene Spaulding, issued a statement on July 13.

“The Florida Highway Patrol supports peaceful demonstrations; however, when protestors block limited-access highways, they are not only breaking the law, but endangering the lives of the demonstrators and the public at large. Please be respectful of our communities.”

Action News Jax asked the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office what warrants an arrest in Duval County. At the time we posted this article, we are still waiting for a response.

Opponents of HB1 said their goal is to have the law repealed.

Sampson said the language is broad and leaves many questions. “If I go out and I protest for police accountability, will I be arrested? Will I lose my pension? Will I stay in jail for a very long time?”