‘I wish I could feel better about our progress’: Panel recaps FL legislative session’s harm to minority communities

Demonstrators gathered in Tallahassee near the Florida Capitol on May 31, 2020, to protest the police killing of George Floyd. Credit: Peter T. Reinwald

Nearing the one-year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd by former police officer Derek Chauvin in Minnesota, a Florida lawmaker and local officials and community members gathered via Zoom in Palm Beach County to reflect about Florida’s 2021 legislative session’s implications for racial and LGBTQ equity.

Progressive efforts to quash bills penalizing transgender athletes and restricting voting access were thwarted in the Republican-majority Florida Legislature.

However, other efforts were more successful, including legislation that creates protocols limiting use of force by law enforcement. Supported by the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, this bill (HB 7051) also prohibits the arrest of children aged 6 years or younger.

Sen. Lori Berman, a Democrat who represents part of Palm Beach County, hosted the event.

“There is still a lot of work to do on law enforcement, but I am really happy we did do the first step forward,” Berman said it the use-of-force bill.

But for those pushing for more racial and LGBTQ equity, there were more losses than wins.

“In four days, it’s the one-year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd,” said Nik Harris of the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for LGBTQ rights. “I wish I could sit here and say that I feel better about all of our progress.”

She brought up HB 1, legislation Gov. Ron DeSantis signed in April that limits how Floridians may gather to protest. DeSantis proposed this legislation in September in reaction to the many Black Lives Matters protests sparked by Floyd’s death.

The new law increases penalties for crimes relating to riots to up to 15 years in prison, penalizes damage to monuments by up to five years in prison, and forbids local municipalities from reducing funding to police forces.

The measure already has drawn lawsuits, but Berman isn’t “particularly hopeful” about the outcomes. “Unfortunately, the make-up of our courts right now is fairly biased because of the people who have been appointed,” she said. “We’ll see how that plays out.”

Harris added: “I love this state, I’m a born and raised Floridian, and my heart weeps that we have a Legislature that can pass an anti-protest bill.”

Harris also brought up legislation that forbids transgender female athletes from playing on public school and university girls’ and women’s sports teams. “As a Black, queer woman,” she said, “I’m saddened.”

Deputy Vice Mayor Shirley Johnson of Delray Beach brought up legislation that restricts access to mail-in voting called SB 90. The legislation severely limits who can drop off absentee ballots for another person, a measure critics contend will harm communities of color and people with disabilities.

“We have senior citizens who cannot leave their homes and feel disenfranchised because no one can come take their ballots,” Johnson noted.

Johnson also recognized the passing of U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, who died in April at 84 of pancreatic cancer, saying that she feels “honored and challenged to continue the work” he fought for. Hastings was the first African American federal judge in Florida and a civil rights lawyer.

“We have lost a true warrior in Rep Alcee Hastings,” Johnson said.