Protest bill passes House, Senate up next

TALLAHASSEE – With Black lawmakers condemning the proposal as a return to the Jim Crow era, the Republican-controlled Florida House on Friday approved a measure aimed at cracking down on violent protests by creating a host of new crimes, enhancing riot-related penalties and creating roadblocks for local governments to trim police spending.

The House’s party-line passage of the law-and-order bill (HB 1) was a first step in delivering one of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ top legislative priorities. As lawmakers approach the midway point of the 60-day legislative session, a Senate version of the measure has not been heard in committees.

Democrats, during nearly four hours of debate on Friday, scalded the proposal, with Black lawmakers especially taking umbrage at what they maintained is a “heartless” approach to civil disobedience at a time when the nation is facing a reckoning over racial biases in policing and other aspects of life.

The Republican governor rolled out a framework for legislation in late September, following protests throughout the country sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Minneapolis Black man who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. In arguing for the bill, Republicans have repeatedly cited violence that occurred in places such as Seattle and Portland, Ore.

The sweeping bill would, among other things, create a new crime of “mob intimidation” and stiffen penalties for injuring police officers during protests that become violent. Also, it would establish an “affirmative defense” for defendants in civil lawsuits involving deaths, injuries or property damage if the injuries or damages were sustained while plaintiffs were participating “in furtherance of a riot.”

But Democrats argued the country’s foundations are rooted in protests, with Black House members emphasizing that acts of civil disobedience were responsible for many of the liberties enjoyed by citizens today.

“We must be careful that, through our zeal to make something illegal, that we chill the very thing that makes us great,” said Rep. Christopher Benjamin, a Miami Gardens Democrat who is a lawyer. “It is … through protests that we remind America of its promises. It is through protests that we activate the conscience of America.”

The proposal is contrary to American democracy, Orlando Democrat Travaris McCurdy said during the emotionally charged floor debate.

“Words did not free slaves. Words did not give women the right to vote. Words did not end Jim Crow. And in order for this country to attempt to live up to its full potential, it took protest, civil disobedience, generation after generation,” said McCurdy, who is Black. “This is un-American. It lacks compassion, and it reeks of the foul odor of a new Jim Crow. … It seems that freedom of speech was free, up until Black and brown people started talking.”

Republicans, however, defended the plan, saying that the proposed new and enhanced crimes are necessary to ensure the safety of Floridians and their property.

“We can act before it’s too late. We do not need to have Miami or Orlando or Jacksonville become Kenosha or Seattle or Portland. We have the ability under House Bill 1 to act now to say you can protest peaceably but you cannot commit acts of violence, you cannot harm other people, you cannot destroy their property, you cannot destroy their lives,” Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Neptune Beach, said.

Republicans also argued that the proposal would ensure the safety of peaceful protesters by giving police more tools to go after violent participants.

But Black Democrats tried to persuade their white Republican counterparts to recognize that, based on history, whites and Blacks are treated in a disparate manner.

“There is a difference in this country and you may as well admit and face it. We Black people will be treated differently from you,” said Rep. Yvonne Hayes Hinson, D-Gainesville.

Tallahassee Democrat Ramon Alexander, who managed the Democrats’ floor debate, acknowledged that the bill is “all about law and order.”

“But the issue that we’re trying to communicate to you, what we’re trying to open your ears to see, is that there’s never been a time in history where the law has been equally applied,” Alexander said.

DeSantis, a close ally of former President Donald Trump, discussed the outline of the plan weeks before the November presidential election. The House and Senate released initial versions of the legislation on Jan. 6, the same day Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in a violent siege intended to block Congress from certifying states’ election results.

GOP legislative leaders pointed to the Capitol unrest as a justification for the effort, but Democrats’ rejected such arguments on Friday.

The bill “exploits tensions versus actually addressing tensions,” Rep. Angie Nixon, D-Jacksonville, said.

“This bill was written in response to peaceful protests this past summer that were focused on the support of those that believe Black lives matter. This is not a bill that has any other group in mind other than Black lives,” she said. “This bill is designed to keep us in check, to keep us fearful, to scare us from speaking out about the fact that Black lives matter.”

But bill sponsor Juan Alfonso Fernandez-Barquin said lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle should be able to support the legislation’s goals.

“We can agree that violence is wrong. We can agree that riots are wrong. We can agree that the government must protect our residents and we can agree that we must protect our law enforcement,” Fernandez-Barquin, a Miami-Dade County Republican.  “And most important, I think we can all agree that violence at a protest delegitimizes the protest.”

Black lawmakers, however, called the legislation hurtful.

The bill equates to “sending a message that only certain types of protests by certain folks are accepted,” argued Rep. Michele Rayner, D-St. Petersburg.

“It’s a hard truth and doesn’t feel good, but the fact that this bill was conceived in response to protests in support of Black lives and is a priority sends a message,” she said. “This message is received, loud and clear.”

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