Fiery debate ushers in House passage of racially charged ‘public disorder’ and protest legislation

Black Lives Matter demonstrators faced a phalanx of law enforcement officers during protests on June 1, 2020, in Washington, D.C., unlike the easily overrun police presence on Jan. 6 that allowed pro-Trump rioters into the nation's Capitol while Congress was in session. Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A racially charged debate Friday in the Florida Capitol spotlighted fears of systemic racism, police brutality, hate crimes, and riotous behavior — with Black lawmakers leading a passionate fight against legislation they say would silence their demands for justice.

Rep. Tyler Sirois, standing, and Rep. Webster Barnaby, wearing yellow tie, strongly support the law-and-order provisions of HB1. When Webster took the mic, he told his Black colleagues to stop complaining about racism and “get with the program.” Screenshot: Florida Channel

Republicans supporting the legislation in the wake of nationwide civil unrest last summer also were passionate in calling for better support of law enforcement and harsher punishments for rioters.

In debate lasting more than four hours, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed the legislation — House Bill 1 — on a partisan 76-39 split. It was a top priority of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who unveiled his “combating public disorder” initiative last September following nationwide protests against the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other unarmed Black people.

American Civil Liberties Union of Florida legislative director Kara Gross said the ACLU condemns the bill.

Rep. Bobby DuBose: “We are here to say we will not be silenced. We will not be criminalized.” Screenshot: Florida Channel

“It unconstitutionally infringes on free speech and the right to peaceably assemble,” Gross wrote in response to the Phoenix.

House Bill 1 sponsor Rep. Juan Fernandez Barquin, a Miami Republican, rejects claims that the bill is unconstitutional. He said it straightforwardly raises penalties for riotous behavior and protects private property, including historical monuments. He said it criminalizes riots, not peaceful protests.

“A protester is not a rioter, and a rioter is not a protester,” he said.

But House Democrats, including all but one of the chamber’s Black members, said they know better.

“We know this all came about, this bill, as a result of peaceful protests, under the umbrella of Black Lives Matter,” said Rep. Bobby DuBose, a Broward Democrat. He said his family participated in protests over the summer.

“I took my sons … to see what democracy looked like and felt like. This proposed legislation could have potentially made us felons,” DuBose said.

Broward Democratic Rep. Patricia Williams recounted her experience as a 14-year-old when she was arrested, thrown to the ground, handcuffed and hauled to jail because she was simply near a group of people loudly exercising their right to free speech.

Regarding Confederate monuments and relics,  Rep. Geraldine Thompson said HB1 creates a prison sentence for “removing vestiges of inhumanity, when people were allowed to own people.” Screenshot: Florida Channel

“Walking while Black. I hadn’t done anything, wasn’t even talking to anybody,” she said. “This is my story. This is my life. I live it every day.”

Rep. Evan Jenne, a Broward Democrat, spoke against House Bill 1 for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the exact amount of time a former Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd — a Black man who was under arrest, face down on the ground, cuffed behind his back, with other police officers watching — until Floyd died.

That killing in May sparked protests and counter-protests across the nation and demands for racial justice in policing.

“The point of this bill is to inspire fear,” said Rep. Omari Hardy, a Palm Beach County Democrat.  “Whatever law you pass, it will not be applied equally. … In my experience, the law has never been applied equally.”

“This is not about rioting. This is about who will be arrested, who will be penalized,” added Rep. Yvonne Hinson, an Alachua County Democrat who said she took part in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a Hillsborough Democrat, said she is dismayed that the governor and Republican leaders would respond to the Black Lives Matter movement not by adopting measures to reduce police brutality but by making it dangerous to even participate in a protest, lest anyone present should do something illegal and subject the entire gathering to felony charges.

Rep. Kevin Chambliss: “This idea was birthed out of the thought that the Black Lives Matter movement was going too far.” Screenshot: Florida Channel

Driskell and others are sponsoring policing-reform bills that include banning chokeholds and tracking police cases of excessive use of force, but those bills have gotten no traction so far this session.

Rep. Andrew Learned, also a Hillsborough Democrat, and others argued that cracking down on Black Lives Matter protests and protecting Confederate monuments should not be a top Republican priority amid the physical and economic ravages of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Listen to what the protesters are asking for. Let’s pass those laws,” Learned said. “Let’s end this division and get back to work for the people.”

Rep. Michelle Salzman: “Protests should never be allowed at the expense of our Florida economy.” Screenshot: Florida Channel

Republican Rep. Tommy Gregory, representing parts of Manatee and Sarasota counties, insisted HB 1’s provisions to fend off riots would protect everyone from “criminals that would terrorize your communities.” He said violence associated with protests and riots last summer caused billions in property damage and cost several people their lives.

“This bill is truly only about one thing: protecting all Floridians … peaceful protesters and innocent bystanders,” Gregory said. “It protects all Floridians from those lawless criminals who would hijack a peaceful protest.”

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat who is openly gay, said LGBTQ people cherish the right to demonstrate for better protection under the law. He said HB 1 would have made criminals out of protesters who demonstrated peacefully outside Sen. Marco Rubio’s office after the 2016 mass shooting at Pulse nightclub that left 49 people dead.

“I’m proud of those protesters. I’m not proud of this bill,” Smith said.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat of Iranian descent, said she has organized and participated in many protests and acts of civil disobedience, including protesting last summer in support of Black Lives Matter and in 2009 against an undemocratically empowered Iranian president.

“This is why I had ‘freedom’ in Farsi tattooed on the back of my neck,” Eskamani said.

Key provisions of HB 1 raise criminal penalties for participating in a protest that becomes disorderly, including up to 15 years in prison, create a liability shield for people who injure a protester associated with a disorderly gathering, and prohibiting local governments from reducing or otherwise adjusting their spending on law-enforcement activity — a reaction to calls to “defund the police” — for any reason.

House Bill 1 as amended has a counterpart in the Senate, SB 484, but it has received no hearings in that chamber. The House bill is now subject to Senate review.