House Republicans push anti-‘disorder bill,’ snub Democrats’ efforts to shield the right to protest

Protesters gather in May 2019 in Fort Lauderdale to demand higher wages. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A Republican-led effort to fend off “public disorder” and any local effort to “defund the police” met heated opposition in the Florida House of Representatives Thursday from Democrats trying to protect the rights of peaceful protesters and home rule.

The chamber’s GOP majority voted down a series of Democratic amendments to a bill initiated by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, including one specifically to protect the right to engage in civil disobedience.

“Civil disobedience is as American as apple pie,” said Orlando Democrat Anna Eskamani. “You cannot stand for freedom and liberty if you oppose civil disobedience.”

Eskamani and other opponents said provisions of HB 1 are so broad they could lead to authoritarian crackdowns on freedoms that brought about movements for civil rights and women’s suffrage.

“From the American Revolution’s Boston Tea Party to the Civil Rights Movement to the movement for environmental justice and Black Lives Matter, today the refusal to obey government commands as a non-violent and collective means of forcing concessions from the government is a critical tool to hold the government accountable,” Eskamani said. “People like myself would not even be in elected office if not for acts of civil disobedience.”

Another defeated amendment would have preserved the ability of local elected officials to decide for themselves whether to reduce or otherwise adjust local spending on law enforcement, including the shifting of some funds from conventional policing toward programs to improve relations between police and the policed.

Yet another rejected amendment would have restored the right of protesters injured in a demonstration to hold the persons who injured them liable — as written, the bill would give counter-protesters free reign to hurt people, the amendment’s supporters said.

Meanwhile, supporters of the “Combating Public Disorder” bill held fast to their commitment to further criminalize “public disorder” by stiffening penalties for even being in the vicinity of disorderly behavior, for damaging monuments or other property, and for blocking traffic. The higher penalties include felony charges and up to 15 years’ imprisonment.

The bill defines a new crime of “mob intimidation,” when three or more people gather to “compel or induce, or attempt to compel or induce, another person by force, or threat of force, to do any act or to assume or abandon a particular viewpoint.” Critics said that definition is so loose as to apply to rowdy spectators at a sporting event.

DeSantis introduced the initiative last fall, following nationwide protests that followed the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other unarmed Black people. The Florida Legislative Black Caucus has introduced numerous bills this session to reform — but not to defund or eliminate — police operations to  reduce violent encounters between police and people of color. None have gained support from Republicans in charge of the House and the Senate.

The governor renewed his demand for an anti-disorder plan immediately following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump, and state Rep. Juan Fernandez Barquin, a Miami-Dade Republican, took it up as sponsor of the bill heard in the House Thursday.

Democrats called the governor’s move insincere and opportunistic. Rep. Dan Daley, a Broward County Democrat, said the whole point of the plan is to whip up support for Florida Republicans among conservative “law and order” voters, not to protect the public from rioters.

“I like to support good policy, whether that’s left, whether that’s center, whether that’s center right,” Daley said. “I don’t think this is good policy. … I think it was based 100 percent on political red meat.”

Daley condemned the bill for imposing penalties on local governments that do not maintain full funding of their local-enforcement operations. He said local officials should control their own budgets.

“Believe you me, we’ll be back to fix it, because you’ll be hearing from your cities again and again,” Daley said.

Rep. Tommy Gregory, a Republican representing parts of Manatee and Sarasota counties, dismissed those concerns.

“It’s not complicated. This part of the bill prevents communities from defunding the police. Period,” Gregory said. “If local governments pursue policies to defund the police, they should be held accountable.”

To become law, HB 1 requires a final vote in the House and further action in the Senate.