Faith leaders condemn FL plan to crack down on protests, call for focus on justice issues

Protesters demonstrated in Columbus, Ohio, in solidarity with nationwide protests against the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman. Credit: Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images

Faith leaders with the Florida Poor People’s Campaign say a state effort to “combat rioting, looting, and violence” is an attack on Floridians’ right to protest for causes such as policing reforms, living wages, and protection against eviction.

A bill titled “Combating Violence, Disorder, and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act,” crafted by Gov. Ron DeSantis, was unveiled last fall following Black Lives Matter protests across the country. Civil rights activists quickly denounced it as an attack on the right to peacefully protest.

DeSantis said the proposal is even more necessary in light of the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by rioters attempting to block certification of Joe Biden as president.

The proposal (HB 1) and (SB 484) was introduced in January by Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin, a Miami-Dade Republican, and Sen. Danny Burgess, a Republican representing parts of Hillsborough, Pasco, and Polk counties. The House of Representatives has already passed it through one committee.

“This is not a bill to target the Capitol uprising of Jan. 6. It is a bill that targets African Americans and Latinos protesting the injustices that we have seen over the summer,” said Father Charles T. Myers, rector of the Episcopal Church of St. John The Baptist in Orlando, during a press conference Monday in the Capitol complex.

“We are protesting for the right for police reform and protesting for the right for pandemic relief and the right for a living wage and affordable housing.”

Along with Myers, Phillip Baber of Jacksonville, Malik Gary of Tallahassee, and Dr. James T. Morris of Orlando condemned the proposal as one designed to suppress demonstrations and divert attention from Florida’s social ills.

Said Baber, “We have far more pressing problems to deal with. We are suffering in the midst of a once-in a lifetime economic and health crisis. The last thing that we need is for our elected public servants to waste precious time and energy on political stunts.”

Morris, who is co-chair of the Faith Committee for the Florida Poor People’s Campaign, said the speakers represented a coalition of more than 500 Florida churches, mosques, synagogues, and other faith organizations.

“Rather than proposing bills designed to silence, stop, punish and criminalize protests, our governor and legislators should be addressing those issues which cause people to protest in the first place,” Morris said in a press statement.

“The real violence and extremism threatening Floridians are the lack of COVID-19 vaccinations, hunger, homelessness, housing insecurity, lack of health care, systematic racism, voter suppression, police violence, ecological devastation, and anti-immigrant policies, to name a few.”

The Florida Black Legislative Caucus strongly opposes the plan and instead is calling for hearings on a package of bills to revise police training and recruiting standards, monitor reports of police use of excessive violence, and more.