With critics warning that the bill would chill free speech and have a disparately negative impact on Black people, a key Senate committee Friday approved a controversial measure that Republicans argue is needed to crack down on violent protests.
Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee spent nine hours picking apart the bill (HB 1), which would create a new crime of “mob intimidation” and enhance penalties on existing riot-related offenses. The proposal is a top priority of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who last year rolled out a framework for the measure in the aftermath of nationwide protests spurred by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died when former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.
The legislation’s designation as HB 1 and the Senate’s unusual move of having just one committee vet it illustrate the proposal’s significance to House and Senate Republican leaders, as well as to the governor. The Appropriations Committee’s 11-9 vote sent the bill to the Senate floor. The vote was along almost straight party lines, with only Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, crossing over to vote against it.
During emotionally charged debate, Black senators talked about their experiences with racism.
Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said he remembered “my daddy being an officer in the local branch of the NAACP” during the civil rights movement. Rouson noted “the irony” that Friday’s debate came as Chauvin’s trial for the murder of Floyd is taking place.
“The purpose for protesting is to bring about real change, to disrupt the status quo, to bring attention, awareness, to bring the light of equity to darkness and injustice, to motivate movement from standards of discrimination that interrupt fairness and cause an eruption of justice,” Rouson, also a former local NAACP president, said.
Democrats spent four hours questioning bill sponsor Danny Burgess, a Zephyrhills Republican who acknowledged that the proposal, if signed into law as expected, could have some unintended consequences.
Burgess said the measure would “tighten up” existing laws, as well as create new crimes related to protests that become violent.
“The reality is a lot of what we have here is already law. We’re just making that a lot more clear, more defined, more readily available for both the public and law enforcement to understand what our intent is as a legislature and to seek to better address what’s already been on the books,” he said.
But Sen. Bobby Powell, a West Palm Beach Democrat who is Black, said that the intent of legislation and the application “don’t always work together.”
“Is there a way to make sure this is not misapplied?” Powell said.
“As much as I like to think that racism is a thing of the past, I’m not naïve. So I don’t know,” Burgess said.
The bill, passed in a party-line vote by the House last month, proposes a host of changes to criminal and civil laws. The new crime of “mob intimidation” would make it unlawful “for a person, assembled with two or more other persons and acting with a common intent, to use force or threaten to use imminent force, to compel or induce, or attempt to compel or induce, another person to do or refrain from doing any act or to assume, abandon, or maintain a particular viewpoint against his or her will.”
But Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer argued the mob intimidation language was too broad.
“What does it mean to compel or induce?” Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, asked Burgess. “We senators take great pride in our ability to persuade and, yes, compel someone to change their mind on an issue. This language is just so broadly worded, so undefined and so potentially harmful to the right of free speech that you could have peaceful protesters prosecuted while someone near them, but maybe not necessarily associated with them, breaks the law.”
Burgess, however, rejected Democrats’ arguments that the proposal is aimed at quashing protests.
“I believe that we are absolutely protecting the right to peaceful protest,” Burgess, a military veteran and lawyer, said. “I would lay down my life for that right.”
Burgess argued that crimes laid out in the bill would be hard for prosecutors to prove, but Democrats were unconvinced.
“I appreciate your intention, but what I believe is the reality of this bill will be much different than your intention. Black and brown people are treated differently than others from law enforcement,” said Sen. Randolph Bracy, an Ocoee Democrat who is Black. “If a person does not believe that, then they’re in denial. I think we have to realize what this bill will do.”
Democrats also raised concerns that peaceful protesters could be accused of crimes even if they do not participate in violent behavior.
“It happens today. It’s unfortunate. But, you know, it’s not unique to the creation of this bill,” Burgess acknowledged. “It’s awful. It’s not what this bill’s addressing.”
The measure “casts a very wide net,” said Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat who is Black.
“The bill itself is really an attempt to suppress the oppressed, because the idea is not to have anyone march at all or protest at all or let their government know that they are in a situation in their communities that can be fixed,” Gibson said.
The bill also addresses the destruction of “memorials,” an issue that has drawn heavy attention after statues of people associated with slavery were torn down or destroyed following Floyd’s death.
The bill would create a new felony crime that would prohibit people from defacing, damaging, destroying or pulling down memorials or historic property if the damage is more than $200. The bill would require people convicted of the crimes to pay for restoration or replacement of the property.
The measure also would create a new felony crime of “aggravated rioting” that carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.
House and Senate legislative leaders released the proposal on Jan. 6, hours after supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol in a failed attempt to prevent certification of states’ election results in Trump’s loss to President Joe Biden.
The Senate committee on Friday heard from dozens of religious leaders, students and activists — many of them Black — who urged legislators to vote down on the measure.
Opponents argued that the restrictions in the bill were antithetical to the nation’s foundations and smacked of Jim Crow-era measures that treated Black people differently than white people.
“This country was founded on protest. This country was nurtured by protest. And this country continues to grow and develop by protest,” Rev. James T. Golden of Manatee County said.
–Dara Kam, News Service of Florida
How timely this article is. Another black man was just shot in Minneapolis after fleeing police. Without any facts, investigation, or details, the black mobsters took violently to the streets and destroyed a mall, stealing flat-screens, Nikes, liquor, and other items. Never let a good social injustice go to waste, right? “This country was founded on protest. This country was nurtured by protest” says the reverend. Fair enough. I would submit to you, however, that the country was NOT founded or nurtured by violent opportunistic thugs looking for destruction of property and free stuff.
Protest all you want. Just do not loot, damage property, or attack police.
The rioters & looters need to be held accountable & responsible for that. Too many infiltrated the peaceful and turned it violent. I don’t like being charged financially with inflation for something that will never benefit me. Nobody likes/does. And you know these businesses will end up overcharging to recover their losses. How many were injured & inconvenienced, terrorized by these mobs. I don’t even want the road blockaded to impede getting around town and freedom to come & go as I please. Take that protest to a place that doesn’t involve destruction of property or threats to people that just are living their own miserable lives with nothing to gain from the protest. They’re worried about the misapplication of the law. I’m worried about some [email protected]$$ burning down my home, damaging an automobile they don’t want to be held accountable or responsible for. Everyone gets their vote, cast the ballot and live with the results. Capitol rioters & looters, they’re facing the repercussions of their actions, so too must BLM or any other mass riot & loot. They have to witness & as prosecution prove with evidence that anyone destroyed property, rioted & looted. Anyone at the Capitol protests/riots/loots, they’re only prosecuting those that were identifiable. How is this different, how is this Crow era legislation, how is this keeping the oppressed from peaceful protest regardless of skin color. A lot of them are being arrested to this day. One dude got away with it for about 90 days and then he was identified on his FL Spring Break trip. Glad they got him, he has to own his day for his Jan 6th actions.
You only need two lines in a new bill in regards to protests.
Peaceful protests encouraged. Violent destructive and deadly protests are unlawful and should be prosecuted to the FULLEST extent of the law!
Once again the people who accuse others of racism are the actual racists. They insinuate that black or brown people cannot differentiate between peaceful protests and violent ones, just as they claim the same people cannot get an ID or log onto the internet due to some imagined mental deficiency. It’s really quite simple: marching, holding signs, chanting, and lobbying politicians are all examples of legal, “peaceful” protesting. When you interfere with the rights of others to do as they legally please then it becomes an issue. If you block streets, harass people walking down the sidewalk or enjoying dinner on an outdoor patio, burn vehicles, businesses and assault the police then that is illegal. It’s not rocket science, folks. What the left actually wants is the ability to do all the afore-mentioned violations of others rights to peace, liberty and happiness without repercussion. They want the illegal to be legal; they want wrong to be right; they want to destroy the foundational values that once united us all and this law will stop that before it starts. If you want to destroy what others created then go to Minneapolis or Portland as they seem to welcome that behavior there.
The days of Free Speech have already disappeared in the Land of the Easily Offended. Before long the govt will come to your door and arrest you up , just because they or someone doesn’t like what you have said about the goverment or their polices. Does that sound familiar ?
A Bailus says
Look, I am no Democrat as they seem to want to take care of everyone in the world on the middle classes’ dime. I’m also no Republican as they want to give all the dimes to the rich, on the middle classes’ dime. Huh. I will say this though, those of you on the (far) right, which seems to be most Republicans these days, need to watch PBS’s Rick Steve’s “Fascism in Europe.” There is a real education on what our Country came close to, and is still vulnerable to.
As a life long Independent, I see this divide as destructive, and I am so, damned tired of reading how you folks are always blaming the other. Seriously. Fact is, protest is protest, and looting is looting. The latter is done by a-holes, not the majority of folks who want serious change, which should not be suppressed. Then, we are China, or Russia, or North Korea, or Hitler’s Germany, or Spain’s Franco.
Will you really feel safer then? Let’s try a little harder to get to the middle of the road on these issues.
Michael Cocchiola says
You can still protest, but you can get run over or shot with impunity. Myanmar here we come.