Governor-backed anti-protest bill wins final approval despite passionate dissent

Sen. Darryl Rouson speaks defiantly in support of peaceful protests and against a bill backed by Gov. DeSantis that critics say makes protests hazardous. Also in opposition are Sen. Perry Thurston, at left, and Sen. Bobby Powell, at right behind Rouson. Dr. Frederic Guerrier, Rouson's personal physician and guest, listens intently. Screenshot: The Florida Channel

After a long and fraught debate in the Florida Senate about racial inequity and civil unrest, the Republican majority delivered to Gov. Ron DeSantis what he has wanted since September: anti-protest legislation.

Democrats delivered powerful speeches about the important role of civil disobedience and protests in American history – and the indelible role of racism and police brutality against minorities.

Republicans, with one exception, stood their ground for DeSantis’ initiative, insisting it is designed to defend people and property from rioters, not to deter peaceful protests.

GOP Sen. Danny Burgess, standing, was tasked with passing House Bill 1 in the Senate. Democratic Sen. Randolph Bracy appears solemn. Screenshot: The Florida Channel

Even the legislation’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Danny Burgess, representing parts of Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties, seemed torn about how to vote on it, saying in closing arguments, “I wish to God I didn’t stand here with this heavy of a heart.”

The legislation, House Bill 1, the first bill filed in the 2021 session, passed 23-17, with all Democrats and one Republican, Sen. Jeff Brandes of Pinellas County, voting against it. The legislation has already passed in the House, over Democratic dissent, and will head to the governor to be signed into law.

House Bill 1 elevates existing criminal penalties for violence and looting and defines new crimes such as “mob intimidation.”

Critics said the new penalties are so severe and the crimes defined so broadly that it will be hazardous for peaceful protesters to assemble.

Should even one person, not necessarily in their ranks, engage in illegal behavior, the entire assembly would be subject to arrest, with potential penalties as great as 15-years imprisonment.

HB 1 also bans any municipality from reducing funding for law enforcement for any reason, even to shift funds into public safety interventions for handling offenders with mental illness or addiction problems.

Sen. Annette Taddeo said her daughter pushed her to take a stand for Black Lives Matter. She opposes HB 1. Screenshot: The Florida Channel

Democratic senators Gary Farmer, of Broward County and Annette Taddeo, of Miami-Dade, talked candidly about the elephant in the chamber: DeSantis and his 2022 re-election campaign and a possible run for the presidency in 2024.

“This is a mail piece for a re-election for a specific base that wants this,” Taddeo said, arguing that the practical purpose of the legislation is to check a box on a conservative campaign agenda that prioritizes law and order over racial justice — even while people of color are being disproportionately brutalized and killed by law enforcement officers.

Farmer said he believes DeSantis pressured Republican leaders to get the bill passed and on his desk ASAP. In the Senate, President Wilton Simpson complied by authorizing the bill to bypass committees likely to kill it, so the measure could reach and be passed in the full Senate. Farmer said senators should not be so compliant.

“We’re the Senate. We don’t have to do everything the governor wants,” Farmer said, urging Republicans to vote their conscience.

While House Bill 1 may or may not be political theater, its Republican proponents said fear of riots that caused property damage, looting and loss of life last summer is real.

Senators representing minorities including African Americans, Cubans, Jews, Venezuelans, and LGBTQ communities said fear of police brutality is even more real.

Sen. Kelli Stargel, surrounded by GOP colleagues, cites outbreaks of violence last summer. She said HB 1 is not racist. Screenshot: The Florida Channel

Republican Sen. Kelli Stargel, citing Wikipedia, recounted violent incidents last summer amid racial unrest that was predominantly non-violent.

“I acknowledge there’s problems. Racism absolutely exists. But that’s not what this bill is about,” said Stargel, who represents parts of Lake and Polk counties. “The deaths that occurred during the protests, the fires that happened, the looting that happened, that is wrong. I hope there’s a day when we can stand together and say that is wrong.”

“That. Is. Wrong,” said Tampa Bay Democratic Sen. Darryl Rouson, who was in fact standing, as he called on his colleagues to bear in mind the difference between non-violent protesters and rioters.

With existing laws on the books against riot, insurrection and looting, Rouson said House Bill 1 represents overkill that will punish the wrong people. He said he has participated proudly in many protests, including for Black Lives Matter, and so have his sons.

Democratic Sen. Perry Thurston said Gov. DeSantis is being heavy-handed for political gain. Screenshot: The Florida Channel

Broward Democratic Sen. Perry Thurston blasted the governor for following in the footsteps of former President Donald Trump, saying Trump invoked excessive use of police force against Black Lives Matter protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd last May in Minneapolis.

“It was always aimed at Black Lives Matter,” Thurston said. “The bill is designed to promote a personal agenda, to get at those who marched. And we are the ones asked to carry it out.”

Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami-Dade Democrat, compared how his white sons would be treated if arrested under House Bill 1 with how a Black youth would likely be treated.

“My sons would be out in 15 minutes,” Pizzo said, because he has the means to be sure of it.

Scorning HB 1, Sen. Jason Pizzo said it would treat Black and brown teenagers differently than his white sons. Sen. Shevrin Jones, at left, and Sen. Janet Cruz, also condemned the bill in debate Thursday. Screenshot: The Florida Channel

Compare that, he said, with an average Black teenager arrested during a protest where something deemed illegal happened. He would be held in jail at least overnight and likely would be offered a plea deal the next day setting him free with “credit for time served” if he pleads guilty and clears out. Unknown to that teen-ager, he would incur a criminal record that could keep him from securing a future student loan or getting a job.

Pizzo has publicly and more than once condemned House Bill 1 as nothing but a campaign ploy by the governor. He said the Republicans in the chamber are under marching orders.

“You do what you’ve go to do,” Pizzo said, shrugging.

House Bill 1 is expected to be quickly delivered to DeSantis’ desk to be signed into law. Pizzo has pointed out that it will take effect immediately, possibly before a verdict is reached in the murder trial of fired policeman Derek Chauvin, charged with killing George Floyd.