Anti-protest bill: Pledged study would reveal racial impact before 2022 elections

By: - April 9, 2021 11:11 am

Sen. Randolph Bracy and senators Bobby Powell, Gary Farmer, Linda Stewart and other Democrats are fighting a proposed anti-riot/anti-protest bill pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that they say targets Black protesters. Screenshot: The Florida Channel

Black Democrats in the Florida Senate won a concession Friday in tense debate over proposed anti-riot/anti-protest legislation that several described as fundamentally racist.

Sen. Bobby Powell, chair of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, won a commitment made on the record in the Senate Appropriations Committee that if the legislation passes, government analysts will study its impact on minorities and report their findings next year – before the 2022 elections.

Powell said such a study would prove or disprove suspicion that House Bill 1, driven by Gov. Ron DeSantis, will criminalize and imprison people of color more than whites.

Critics of the bill have described it as red meat for conservative voters ahead of DeSantis’ campaign for re-election as governor in fall 2022. The study, if it confirms fears that the bill targets Black protesters, could potentially undermine his campaign.

Republican Sen. Danny Burgess, spearheading the bill in the Senate Appropriations hearing, pledged he would not leave the Capitol building Friday until he and Powell had penned a letter to Senate President Wilton Simpson commissioning such a study.

With many members suspecting the bill will pass no matter what, Powell agreed to withdraw his amendment mandating such a study in exchange for Burgess’ on-the-record pledge to commission one through the Senate president.

If Powell’s amendment had passed, which was unlikely considering that none of the amendments were approved, it would have put the bill out of alignment with the version approved in the House. The bill’s supporters intend to avoid that in order to quickly send it unamended to the full Senate and then to the governor. If the amendment had been defeated without Powell extracting the pledge from Burgess, it’s possible no study would have been commissioned.

Powell’s second amendment, would have mandated an independent study of racial impact by Florida State University, with findings due before the 2022 general election. That amendment, which he declined to withdraw, was defeated.

Scores of witnesses testifying remotely from the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center said they would want to see the study embedded in the bill, if the bill itself cannot be derailed.

“OMG. This committee just rejected two opportunities for empirical studies on the bill,” tweeted Ida Eskamani, a progressive organizer with Florida Rising.

“A true commitment would be codifying it to the bill,” Eskamani told the Phoenix by text. “Our constitutional rights and the rights and safety of Black Floridians should be worth supporting an amendment.”

League of Women Voters of Florida representative Trish Neely testified in support of both amendments.d League President Patricia Brigham was pleased to at least see the pledge made publicly by Burgess to commission a state study of racial impact.

“That’s a very good idea, as we believe communities of color would be greatly impacted should HB 1 pass into law,” Brigham said by text with the Phoenix.

Sen. Jason Pizzo, chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, which was bypassed by Simpson in order to expedite the bill, remarked on House Bill 1’s lightspeed progression and its unusual effective date: immediately upon signing by the governor.

“There’s a trial going on now — the verdict which could make some people very unhappy,” Pizzo said, obviously alluding to the trial under way in Minneapolis of fired, white police officer Derek Chauvin who is charged with murdering George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, last May. Floyd’s death in police custody ignited Black Lives Matter protests in the United States and abroad.

Pizzo implied the bill is being fast-tracked for final approval before the verdict is known, possibly sparking strong reactions across the country, whatever it may be.

Pizzo said the study is a “very, very, very, very reasonable requirement” that will make clear what the bill unveiled by DeSantis last September is about.

“It could serve very nicely as a bluff call,” Pizzo said. “If this bill is not about race, you should have nothing to fear.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to deliberate over House Bill 1 all day Friday and possibly Saturday.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper. Contact her at [email protected]