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None of the Cuba protesters who closed Miami highway cited under GOP-backed anti-rioting law

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 7/15/2021 Brittany Shammas, Timothy Bella, Meryl Kornfield
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Scores of people crowded a major Miami-area highway Tuesday, chanting in support of rare protests that erupted days earlier in Cuba against the country’s communist government.

The rally caused an hours-long closure on part of the Palmetto Expressway in Miami-Dade County. It was the sort of scene envisioned by a divisive Florida law that Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) pushed amid last year’s wave of racial justice demonstrations. The legislation calls for protesters to be cited if they block traffic.

But no citations were given Tuesday, according to state and local law enforcement. Critics took issue with the lack of citations, saying the law is unclear or unevenly applied. DeSantis, who invoked the possibility of protesters shutting down a highway as he signed the bill into law, has been vocal in his support of rallies against the Cuban government. Asked about the Palmetto Expressway protests during a Tuesday roundtable with reporters, he said the recent demonstrations were “fundamentally different” than last summer’s protests that had inspired the law.

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He was arrested at a Black Lives Matter protest. Now, he’s warning others about Florida’s anti-riot proposal.

“I think that people understand the difference between going out and peacefully assembling, which is obviously people’s constitutional right, and attacking other people or burning down buildings or dragging people out of a car,” he said. “They are much different situations.”

But Florida Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat who opposed the law, said it was “100 percent applicable” to the protest in the Miami area. She criticized the “hypocrisy” and said the lack of enforcement showed the law was aimed specifically at Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

“It’s just such an ideology of convenience that all of a sudden the party of law and order that passed this bill doesn’t think that it’s an issue, doesn’t think that this applies,” she told The Washington Post. “It’s so funny in the sense of the hypocrisy of it all, and also just speaks to how bad policy comes out of the culture wars.”

The law was put to use this week in Tampa, when two men were arrested during protests against the Cuban government.

Julian Rodriguez-Rodriguez, 30, and Maikel Vasquez-Pico, 39, were among the protesters who blocked traffic at Dale Mabry Highway and Interstate 275 on Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Times reported. Records show the men, who were arrested on multiple charges, were being held in jail until their first appearance in court because of the “anti-rioting” law.

a group of people looking at a close up of a person: Women kneel and hold a Cuban flag as they block Palmetto Expressway in Miami during a demonstration of support for Cubans protesting their government on July 13, 2021. © Eva Marie Uzcategui/AFP/Getty Images Women kneel and hold a Cuban flag as they block Palmetto Expressway in Miami during a demonstration of support for Cubans protesting their government on July 13, 2021.

Eskamani said the denial of bail for the two “also is unjust,” adding “at the end of the day, I stand with the right to protest.” She said the different approaches toward the law in Miami and Tampa showed it is overly broad and vague.

“It depends on the perspective of the law enforcement officer and of the prosecutor, so it just depends on how zealous is someone going to be,” she said. “And that’s not okay. You should not have policies so broad there’s different applications.”

Florida GOP says a new law will stop riots. Critics say it’s an ‘outrageous’ ploy to end protests.

The anti-rioting law, signed after protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, says a person is committing a riot if “he or she willfully participates in a violent public disturbance involving an assembly of three or more people.” The measure also increases the penalties for any violence, burglary, looting or property damage during protests. Under the law, anyone arrested on unlawful-assembly charges must be held without bail until a first appearance in court.

A person shall be cited for a pedestrian violation if they “willfully obstruct the free, convenient, and normal use of a public street, highway or road.”


Video: Are The Protests In Support Of Cuba Breaking Florida’s New Anti-Riot Law? (CBS Miami)

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At the signing ceremony, the governor called the measure “the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law-enforcement piece of legislation in the country.”

“Just think about it, you’re driving home from work, and all of a sudden, you have people out there shutting down a highway, and we worked hard to make sure that didn’t happen in Florida,” said DeSantis, who described the 2020 protests as “really unprecedented disorder and rioting.” “They start to do that, [then] there needs to be swift penalties.”

Before this week, the protest law had not been enforced, said Camara Azikiwe Williams and Aaron Carter Bates, attorneys representing the Lawyers Matter Task Force, a nonprofit organization that is suing DeSantis and Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody (R). Williams and Bates said the law probably has not been enforced because it is otherwise illegal to damage property and injure others.

Their federal lawsuit says the legislation does not “adequately describe what conduct or speech will subject an individual or an organization to liability for ‘inciting a riot.’” Because of the overly broad language, Williams said, interpretation is left to the law enforcement of the state’s 67 counties.

Bates has advised his clients to steer clear of protesting while the litigation continues, he said, but some of his clients have still demonstrated, leading him to recommend that they be aware of their surroundings, record the protest and use legal observers — guidance he said could be useful for Miami demonstrators.

When he saw the news of their protests, Bates said, he “just assumed they would be swept up under this bill.”

Bob White, the chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Florida, who opposed the bill because it could be used against conservative protesters, said the law signed by DeSantis “makes no distinction between the type of protest or the ideology behind the protest.”

If police or prosecutors wish to use the law to target these demonstrators, it is outside the hands of DeSantis and Republican lawmakers, he said.

“It certainly could be a potential danger for the organizers of this protest,” White said.

Proud Boys and Black Lives Matter activists clashed in a Florida suburb. Only one side was charged.

Melba Pearson, a civil rights attorney and former prosecutor, compared the images of protesters shutting down one of Miami’s major highways to the scenes condemned by DeSantis during his push for the bill, saying neither group should face criminal penalties for peacefully demonstrating.

“The same behavior done by Black Lives Matter protesters and criminal justice reform protesters, people protesting police brutality, that drove this whole thing into motion; now you see the same activity done by Cuban protesters and all of a sudden it’s okay,” she said.

Critics of the law questioned DeSantis’s political aims when arguing it didn’t apply to the people protesting the Cuban government. Exiles from the island are an integral voting bloc for the Republican Party in South Florida.

A spokesman for Florida Highway Patrol, which has jurisdiction over the Palmetto Expressway, declined to address questions about the agency’s response to Tuesday’s highway shutdown. Lt. Alex Camacho instead forwarded a statement that said troopers were working closely with local law enforcement to clear highways “as quickly and peacefully as possible.”

“The Florida Highway Patrol supports peaceful demonstrations; however, when demonstrators block roadways, they are endangering themselves, the public at large, and first responders,” the statement said.

Camacho previously told the Miami Herald that troopers had not threatened to arrest protesters for blocking traffic because there hadn’t been an order to disperse.

“It hasn’t got to that level,” he said, according to the newspaper. “There have been attempts at negotiations and we’re doing our best to keep them safe.”

Within Miami city limits, demonstrators gathered Tuesday in front of Versailles Restaurant, a landmark establishment along Calle Ocho in the city’s Little Havana neighborhood. Miami Police Department spokesman Michael Vega said officers briefly closed part of the street in front of the restaurant.

Although protesters flowed into the roadway, no citations were given and no arrests were made, he said. Asked why the new law wasn’t applied, he said, “That’s a decision that had to be made by those in command,” adding the demonstrators only went into the street after officers closed it.

“We’re prepared for anything and everything that might come our way,” Vega said. “We have our officers on standby just in case anything goes wrong.”

But, he continued, “in the city of Miami, it’s been peaceful.”

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