“Stop the Steal” protesters clashed with counter protesters on Nov. 13 at Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House. Credit: Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images
Racial tension and partisan rancor coloring the 2021 Florida legislative session is likely to be on full view Friday, when civil-rights advocates and their supporters expect to protest an anti-protest bill being fast-tracked by Republicans in answer to Black Lives Matter demonstrations last summer.
In the background are daily news accounts of the murder trial of a fired Minneapolis police officer accused of killing George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, after arresting him last May on a non-violent offense.
A Florida Senate committee is scheduled Friday to hear House Bill 1, a top-priority initiative of Gov. Ron DeSantis that allies call an “anti-mob” bill to protect police and property. Detractors say it is a heavy-handed crackdown on free speech and civil-rights protests.
From the start of the 2021 legislative session, it has been a pivotal piece of legislation that shapes what Floridians will need to know about their state.
Approved in the House of Representatives, House Bill 1 — the “Combating Violence, Disorder, and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act” — has not been heard even once in the Florida Senate, yet it is scheduled for a hearing in the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, in an unusual demonstration of executive power to bypass Senate conventions so senators will be able to vote on the bill.
Opponents of Florida’s HB 1 were working this week to line up scores of witnesses to testify against the bill and to organize peaceful protests in cities around the state.
The showdown over HB 1 is timely — in the midst of the murder trial of fired, white police officer Derek Chauvin, charged with killing Floyd last May by kneeling on his neck for roughly nine minutes as Floyd lay face down on a street, hands cuffed behind his back, struggling to breathe. It happened in broad daylight, as distraught onlookers pled for Floyd’s life and three other police officers failed to intervene. Many witnesses recorded it on video.
Floyd’s death ignited Black Lives Matter protests around the world, some involving violence, looting and arson, which DeSantis and his Republican allies intend to extinguish, while Black lawmakers and civil-rights groups demand that their grievances be redressed. So far this session, police-reform proposals sponsored by the Black legislators have been largely ignored.
“It’s really telling that in response to the murder of George Floyd and in the wake of the protests this past summer, there was no real effort to look at any reforms we could do in terms of law enforcement, although there were some law enforcement agencies that had agreed to some reforms and who would like to have done that,” said Sen. Bobby Powell, an Orlando Democrat and chair of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus.
“Instead, the response was to create legislation that would punish people who protest what they see as injustice. No listening, no opportunity for conversations, no working together to come up with meaningful solutions. Instead, it resulted in, ‘I want to be sure I punish anybody who doesn’t agree with me.'”
Powell, a member of the Republican-dominated Senate Appropriations Committee, said he and the Legislative Black Caucus, with at least one exception, the caucus’ lone Black Republican, will continue to fight HB 1.
A fraught time in history
The Southern Poverty Law Center says Florida is the No. 2 state in the nation for concentration of hate groups, second only to California. The racial tension and political rancor following the killing of George Floyd escalated further on Jan. 6 with the white-nationalist attack on the nation’s Capitol, where insurrectionists put symbols of bigotry and hate on inglorious display next to American flags and “Make America Great Again” banners.
Black Florida lawmakers and civil-rights advocates say the Legislature of the Sunshine State should respond to these defining moments by denouncing white supremacy, culling out bad cops with histories of using excessive force, protecting minorities most often brutalized, including LGBTQ communities, and defending voting rights that are under attack around the nation after so many Black people and Democrats voted in 2020.
Instead, the first piece of Republican legislation filed was HB 1, further protecting private property, controversial historical monuments and police officers. Gov. DeSantis all but demanded the bill last September after throngs of Black Lives Matter protesters took to the streets in Florida and across the United States. Protests in Florida were largely non-violent, with exceptions, notably in Tampa, where Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren said existing laws amply covered the situation.
DeSantis and House Speaker Chris Sprowls drew lines in the sand, with DeSantis declaring that Florida will tolerate no public disorder and Sprowls declaring that no Florida city will be allowed to “defund the police” by reducing their funding for law enforcement for any reason.
After the Republican-led House of Representatives adopted HB 1, leaders of the Republican-led Senate used their leadership positions to muscle the bill past two Senate committee chairmen, one a Democrat, one a Republican, who did not bring up the bill’s Senate companion in their committees. With no action in the Senate, House Bill 1 would have died.
Led by the governor, conservatives strongly support HB 1, which would make existing penalties for disorderly conduct severe, even repressive, critics say.
Analysts including the ACLU of Florida say HB 1 raises penalties up to felonies punishable by 15 years in prison just for being present at a gathering where any person, even a lone counter-protester, does something deemed riotous. Every person at such an event would be subject, at the least, to arrest and a night in jail without bond.
That proposal deeply offends Jamil Davis, Florida director of Black Voters Matter, who is helping rally opposition to House Bill 1 and to election reforms he says would suppress minority voting in Florida.
“This bill was set up from the beginning to be a bad bill for Black people,” Davis told the Phoenix. “This bill literally was a proposal in response to everything that happened during the Black Lives Matter protests.”
A former chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court also is fighting House Bill 1.
“It appears that the people proposing these bills are not interested in everyone having the right to vote and are not interested in people having the right to free speech,” said former Chief Justice Peggy Quince, who served on the state’s highest court from 1998 until 2019, two years as chief justice. She is now a board member at the League of Women Voters of Florida, which strongly opposes House Bill 1 as infringing on the exercise of free speech and the right to assemble.
Quince told the Phoenix in March it is urgent that lawmakers halt police brutality, curb systemic racism, and prevent voter suppression – not respond to those ills by making it hazardous to participate in protests against them.
Other opponents include the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Tallahassee Mayor John Dailey, Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren, Florida Rising, the AFL-CIO, the National Organization for Women in Florida, the Conference of Catholic Bishops and many others who individually or as representatives testified in numerous heated public hearings when the bill was moving through House committees.
Battle of rules
The fact that House Bill 1 is being heard in the Senate at all, having not passed through a single committee in that chamber to date, illustrates how important the bill is to key Republicans with serious clout.
For everyday citizens who can’t be expected to follow this sort of maneuvering, here’s what happened in a nutshell: The Senate counterpart, Senate Bill 484, was assigned to pass through committees chaired by Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami-Dade Democrat, and Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Pinellas Republican, both senior senators with special interests in criminal-justice policy.
They did not take up the bill, which critics describe as not only criminalizing peaceful protesters who are in the wrong place at the wrong time, but also as hugely expensive by potentially imprisoning thousands of protesters for up to 15 years, at great expense to taxpayers, no less. It also would cost those new felons their voting rights.
Senate President Wilton Simpson agreed to disregard his committee chairs and authorized HB 1 to be heard in Senate Appropriations, which will be its only stop before a full Senate vote.
To ensure against any delays, Sen. Kelli Stargel, the Republican chair of the Republican-dominated Appropriations Committee, scheduled back-to-back hearings on Friday and on Saturday, in case Democrats put up a procedural fight.
That’s because Senate Democrats including Democratic Leader Gary Farmer, a lawyer, and former Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson are taking a stand against the Senate taking up bills passed by the Republican majority in the House without subjecting them to the Senate’s own committee process.
For example, on Monday, Gibson and Farmer objected to the Senate Rules Committee taking up a school-prayer bill taken straight from the House, despite having a similar Senate counterpart at hand. Gibson called it a “bait and switch” maneuver to circumvent senators’ right to deliberate on Senate terms.
“I really wish we wouldn’t do this. We have these rules for a reason, and there’s a gap here — a gap in how these House bills come over here and what we do with them. It’s a little bit of a slap in the face to our [Senate] colleagues … who worked on this bill and now their work means nothing because we’re ignoring it,” Farmer said at the Monday hearing.
Ida Eskamani, a community organizer with Florida Rising who testifies frequently in support of unemployment benefits, policing reform, voting rights, civil rights and other progressive issues, said opponents of House Bill 1 will be highly visible on Friday, though she did not elaborate. Ida Eskamani is the sister of Orlando state Rep. Anna Eskamani.
House Democrats put up a fight against HB 1 at every committee stop in their chamber, but Republicans who are in the majority prevailed, citing the importance of maintaining law and order, protecting private property and historical monuments from being damaged during protests, and forbidding any attempts to “defund the police.”
The proponents acknowledged that Florida laws already provide punishment for crimes against property and police but argued they should be even tougher.
Critics say they hope Senate Democrats and Florida citizens can win over enough Republican senators to defeat the bill in the Appropriations Committee or in the full Senate. At the federal level, they endorse passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that passed in the U.S. House of Representatives in late February and is awaiting action in the Senate. On Tuesday, 11 state attorneys general wrote to Senate leaders urging them to pass the act.
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