FL House leaders silent on Black delegation’s protest; will some GOP lawmakers support punishment?

By: - May 11, 2022 7:00 am

Black lawmakers in the Florida House spoke about the protest in the chamber and held a press conference after the session. April 21, 2022. Credit: Screenshot/Florida Channel.

With another special legislative session less than two weeks away, leaders in the Florida House have remained mum on whether they will take punitive action over an extraordinary protest last month by the Black delegation in the state House chamber.

Also unclear is whether caucus members could plan another protest during the upcoming session on property insurance concerns and other issues starting May 23.

Black Democrats loudly chanted, wore t-shirts that read “Stop the Black Attack,” and staged a sit-in on April 21 that disrupted debate over African-American representation in the congressional redistricting process that eliminated two Black seats.

“When Black votes are under attack, we stand up and fight back,” the crowd of Black lawmakers yelled that day on the House floor.

State Rep. Travaris McCurdy and other members of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus have no regrets for participating in what they called a peaceful protest.

“I haven’t heard anything as far as disciplinary acts and retribution. Of course, they (Republicans) have said in the media, some of them are calling for us to be censored, some calling for us to be jailed, some calling for us to be expelled,” McCurdy, of Orange County, said in a phone conversation with the Florida Phoenix.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls and other Republicans have condemned the demonstration on the House floor led by Democratic state Reps. McCurdy and Angela Nixon of Duval County.

Some GOP colleagues can be culturally clueless

Sprowls, in a previous written statement, said a group of House members “decided to hijack the legislative process” and that they violated House rules. And state Rep. Randy Fine, a Republican representing part of Brevard County, said in a phone conversation with the Phoenix that “three members engaged in sedition on the House floor.”

Some other Republicans “equated the protest to the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol,” according to a report from the Orlando Weekly. And state Rep. Anthony Sabatini of Lake County called for arrests of the members who protested, according to the report.

“That just shows you that hidden racism is still there,” state Rep. Patricia Williams, of Broward County, told the Phoenix in a text message.

Dotie Joseph of Miami-Dade is an attorney and Democratic member of the House.

She said in a text message to the Phoenix that “some GOP colleagues can be culturally clueless in trying to mischaracterize the peaceful protest as something akin to January 6th when it was actually a present day manifestation of 1964 era protest in response to new Jim Crow era practices by Southern States to undermine Black representation.”

Joseph added: “As antagonistic as the GOP has been towards citizens right to peacefully protest, members have a constitutional right to peacefully protest and had a right to be where they were. While there may be a question about House rules, the question is whether those inferior rules will give way to the superior rights endowed by the U.S. Constitution.”

Will Dems protest during special session?

In a phone conversation with the Phoenix, Rep. McCurdy didn’t suggest that members are planning to take action on the House floor similar to the protest during the last special session.

“We responded to the environment as we saw progressing day by day,” McCurdy said. “We were mentally prepared for whatever may have happened but that was the sacrifice that we were willing to make to let people know what’s going on and bring some awareness to Tallahassee.”

But state Rep. Yvonne Hinson told the Phoenix that she expects some controversy as lawmakers gather to discuss issues surrounding property insurance in the state Capitol later this month.

“What I anticipate always is some controversy. The level at which I never know. I always walk with a heighten sense of alertness,” said Hinson, a Democrat representing parts of Alachua and Marion counties.

“They [Republicans] do nothing without full intention. My question now is: Are we playing in their hands to some unknown cause?” Hinson said.

House rules

Meanwhile, the Sergeant at Arms is the security liaison for the House, according to a memo on House rules. Speaker Sprowls “presides over the House and the Sergeant serves at his direction,” House Communications Director Jenna Sarkissian told the Phoenix in an email.

In “The Rules” memo for the Florida House, penalties for protests by House members are not mentioned but they are expected to adhere to ethical standards, including a rule that “members shall perform at all times in a manner that promotes a professional environment in the House.”

According to the section on “Penalties for Violations,” the rules memo states that “separately from any prosecutions or penalties otherwise provided by law, any member determined to have violated the requirements of these rules relating to ethics or member conduct shall be fined, censured, reprimanded, placed on probation, or expelled or have such other lesser penalty imposed as may be appropriate.”

State Rep. Fine told the Phoenix that he doesn’t have “any comment on” whether legal action will take place against members who protested during the special session, but “that would be a decision for the Speaker [Sprowls].”

“I certainly would strongly consider it,” Fine said, adding that Black caucus members threw a “temper tantrum” when they “didn’t get their way.”

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Issac Morgan
Issac Morgan

Issac Morgan is a 2009 graduate of Florida A&M University's School of Journalism, and a proud native of Tallahassee. He has covered city council and community events at the Gadsden County Times, worked as a sports news assistant at the Tallahassee Democrat, a communications specialist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and as a proofreader at the Florida Law Weekly.