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 largely peaceful 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.”
–Dara Kam, News Service of Florida
Well when people destroy public property or private property as a result of their “protest” ( or they say its was a protest) then they should be arrested and prosecuted and I don’t care about their political belief or protest agenda.
Jason B says
Let’s see …. first they pass a law that makes it more difficult for black people to vote, then they pass a law which makes it a crime for black people to peacefully protest that they are not able to vote. You know, the new Jim Crow looks a heck of a lot like the old Jim Crow.
Deborah Coffey says
So, these Republicans in the Florida Legislature must believe that THEIR OWN White supremacist insurrectionists who violently tried to overtake our Capitol on January 6th, in which 5 people were killed, 144 police officers were seriously injured with one losing an eye, and serious damage done to the people’s property…should be convicted of sedition and hanged by the neck, publicly, until dead? After all, Black Lives Matter protests are a drop in the bucket compared to the violence in Washington, D.C. on January 6th…but, I don’t hear any Republicans speaking out against THEIR OWN WHITE terrorists. So, it’s only the racism and the power that are important to Republicans. If they wanted us SAFE, they wouldn’t have opened the state in the middle of a pandemic, allowing over 2,000,000 Floridians to become infected and killing over 33,000.
Bill C says
Where is the definition of a “riot” and who gets to determine when a peaceful protest turns into a riot? What if 1,000 people are peacefully demonstrating and 1 person breaks a window? Does the tear gas fly?
Michael Cocchiola says
We’re heading back to the Jim Crow south. There’s no other reason for this legislation bill or that which was passed into law in Georgia is to give Republicans total control and to suppress dissent… with dogs and guns. The south is reigniting and refighting the Civil War.
Flori-duh. Only state that seems fine with burning the constitution.
Thanks so much Deborah. . . my thoughts exactly! It will be interesting to see if the new laws are enforced “EQUALLY” during riots by MAGA/White Supremacists/Q ANON protesters. . . NOT!
@Viva La Florida
A Concerned Observer says
Sorry, I don’t get it. This bill is not a “heartless approach to civil disobedience”. Rather, it establishes a defining line between peaceful protest and thugs who take advantage of escalating mob mentality to committing violent and dangerous criminal acts. This applies to any violent protest, whatever the cause, and not only those racially motivated protests. Will black lawmakers equally condemn violent crimes committed during a global warming demonstration or is it only issue when it suits them? The wanton destruction of personal and commercial property and violent attacks on uninvolved parties does nothing to rectify any injustice, perceived or actual. As long as these crimes go unpunished, the perpetrators behavior will continue and most likely escalate with every public demonstration, regardless of the cause being demonstrated against. The immediate result of these unpunished crimes is the widening the gap between sides rather than garnering any sympathy for the protesters cause. The cry of “No Justice No Peace” creates neither, regardless the cause. These are crimes. Punish them as such.
Ray W. says
We already have a defining line between peaceful protestors and malicious actors. In the property crimes area, we call it criminal mischief, a crime that I prosecuted many times during my years in the SAO. Burglary also comes to mind. Both carry felony sanctions, though criminal mischief can be a misdemeanor if the damage is slight. Violent attacks on persons can be addressed with aggravated battery or aggravated assault, among many other options. Concerned Observer appears to believe that such crimes go unpunished. Not only are such crimes punished, many people all around the country have already been punished or are in the process of being punished, with the number of insurgents at the capital building facing prosecution at over 400 and climbing. Something tells me the proposed criminal sanctions are directed at Concerned Citizen’s vote, not his safety, as criminal sanctions already exist sufficient to ensure his safety. These new sanctions may turn out to be feel-good measures. Concerned Citizen at least impliedly recognizes that some people cannot be identified during a protest that turns violent and, therefore, get away with crimes during the chaos, but that is an issue of identification, not punishment. The ability to prosecute and punish has always been there.
Finding Biden says
OMG, you have to actually get a PHOTO ID to vote…..OMG you are now going to be arrested for burning down private property and killing innocent people. What is wrong with this state ?… (SARC)
Omg, I hope this is not the case that would be wrong, unfair that would be sending the wrong message to the black Americans I’m sorry ppl really I am!