Despite barrage of pushback, state Senate committee narrowly approves controversial anti-protest bill

Protests over George Floyd's death have escalated across Florida and elsewhere around the country. Credit: YouTube.

Senate Democrats, one Republican and scores of witnesses who traveled from across the state of Florida waged an eight-hour fight Friday against anti-protest legislation to protect police and property that critics denounce as a crackdown on free speech and civil-rights protests.

The vote in favor of the legislation, HB 1, was 11 to 9, with Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, of Pinellas County, siding with Democrats on the Senate’s Appropriations Committee.

The legislation goes next to the full Senate for consideration. The state House had already voted in favor of the bill earlier.

People who traveled from as far away as Miami to arrive by 8 a.m. and give testimony against the bill included a woman carrying her baby, a woman whose car had a flat tire on the way, a man who said he was assaulted by police while peacefully protesting in support of Black Lives Matter, and a man who was struck by a motorist during a Black Lives Matter protest.

“Black and brown people are not treated the same as others by law enforcement,” said Orlando Sen. Randolph Bracy, a Black Democrat.

State Sen. Darryl Rouson. Credit, Florida Senate website.

“I am a protester,” said Sen. Darryl Rouson, who is Black and represents part of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. ”I was raised by protesters. I understand protesting.”

Rouson said he deeply believes in the power of protests to bring about positive change, and he objected to making protests hazardous to protesters at a time when police brutality is under scrutiny around the nation and around the world.

“The irony is not lost on me that we are in the middle of a trial in Minnesota concerning the murder of George Floyd, that set off national riots and protesting. I use those terms very narrowly,” Rouson said, referring to the murder trial of fired police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis.

Further, Rouson said, “The timing is poignant, for today is the 53rd anniversary of the funeral of Dr. King, and we ought to be thinking about burying this bill.”

The bill is House Bill 1, titled the “Combating Violence, Disorder, and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act,” which was initiated by Gov. Ron DeSantis last September following Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the killing of Floyd.

Republican Sen. Danny Burgess championed the bill in the Senate Appropriations Committee, where it was heard in the Senate for the first time, having bypassed all other committees that were supposed to hear it first.

Burgess insisted the bill is about deterring riotous behavior and looting, not suppressing protests, and he stressed it had “come a long way” from its original form. He represents parts of Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties.

But Rouson and others said the bill would have “a chilling effect” by overcriminalizing offenses that are illegal already.

“Black and brown people will suffer disproportionately. We’ve seen it. We know the data.” Rouson said.

State Sen. Jason Pizzo, representing parts of Miami-Dade, said, “You don’t understand … what this represents for Black and brown teen-agers.” He has  long pushed for legislation to curb gun violence that leads to many deaths among minority and even more incarcerations.

“It’s bothered me ever since Trayvon Martin,” Pizzo continued, imploring more Republicans to vote with the Democrats this time. “A yes vote on this bill … puts you on the wrong side of history.” (Martin, an unarmed Black teen, was killed in 2012 by George Zimmerman, who was acquitted.)

Orlando Sen. Linda Stewart said House Bill 1 strips local governments of authority to determine their own budgets for law enforcement and public safety and gives that control to the governor and Cabinet. That provision prohibits any municipality to “defund the police” — even just by shifting some law enforcement funding into non-violent public safety programs for disorderly people with mental illness and drug addiction.

“I’m really concerned about the impact on local governments,” Stewart said, adding she received more than 3,000 emails about House Bill 1, not one of them in support.

Sen. Brandes said House Bill 1 could have addressed the police reforms protesters are calling for, as well as concerns about protecting property and monuments from rioters. Instead, he said, it embraces toxic politics.

“Florida had a chance with the legislation to rise above it all,” Brandes said, confirming he would vote no.

Opponents secured only one concession Friday: a public pledge by Burgess to co-author with Sen. Bobby Powell a letter to the Senate president commissioning a study of the racial impact of House Bill 1 should it become law. Powell represents part of Palm Beach County.

The pledge calls on the study to release its findings before the general election next year — in order to prove or disprove suspicion that it will be used disproportionately against minorities.