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Anti-riot bill headed to Gov. DeSantis

Senior Editor Top Stories

Evening lighting historic State Capitol Building Tallahassee FloridaAfter two days of emotional debate and the rejection of multiple attempts to amend it, a bill to up penalties for violent protesters, allow challenges to municipal cuts to police budgets, and create crimes of mob and cyber intimidation has passed the Florida Senate and been sent to the governor.

HB 1, which Gov. Ron DeSantis called his top legislative priority, passed the Senate 23-17 on April 15, completing an alternative process for hearing the measure in the upper chamber. The bill passed the House on March 26 76-39.

Since the Senate passed the exact version approved by the House, the law goes directly to DeSantis and becomes effective upon his signature — something cited by organizations opposing both HB 1 and legislation to pass more tightened Florida voting laws. Those opponents said HB 1 could be used to block protests against the voting bills.

The Senate passage came after two days of extended deliberations. On April 14, senators asked questions and Democrats proposed a slew of amendments to do everything from remove different sections of the bill to add a new section prohibiting protests at personal residences. All 16 amendments were rejected.

April 15 featured debate and impassioned statements from senators on both sides.

Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Ft. Lauderdale, decried those who claimed the bill was aimed not only at violence that occurred in last summer’s protests but also the January 6 rioting at the U.S. Capitol.

“HB 1 is not and never has been aimed at that insurrection. It has always been aimed at Black Lives Matter. It was dreamed up and carried out by individuals who never had to protest,” Thurston said. “The bill is designed to promote a personal agenda, it was designed to get at those individuals marching in the streets across the nation.”

“You don’t want us in the streets. You don’t want us to kneel at games. You don’t want us to shut down the streets. So, our response to injustice is to protest and your response to us is to criminalize it,” said Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-Miami Gardens. “Until we begin to fix the system, you’re going to continue to see disruption and unfortunately this bill will not stop it. What we’re about to pass today is an invitation to fight harder against the very things we thought was the past.”

“We still in 2021 live in two different Americas,” said Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach. “People deserve the right to speak out against the things they believe have oppressed them.… This legislation is designed to prevent the ones who feel that there is an injustice from having any say so in what is happening in their lives.”

Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Jacksonville, said changes are needed and more work needs to be done to promote racial justice, but “I draw the line, I will not go forth and loot our mom and pop shops. I draw the line at burning buildings down that people’s life savings helped to create. And I will not participate when lives are being threatened or lost or hurt.

“….We are a state of laws, a nation of laws…. It [the bill] says protest is good; killing, looting, burning is not.”

Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Ft. Myers, said the sovereign immunity provision was intended to prevent what happened in Seattle last summer, when authorities allowed protesters to control a several block area in downtown and did not respond to 911 or other calls from that area. The provision removes sovereign immunity limits in a suit brought against a municipality claiming it interfered with police response to a riot.

“We need for our cities in Florida to know that’s not an appropriate response and if they choose to go down that road, they will lose the privilege of sovereign immunity,” Rodrigues said. “No citizen should ever dial 911 and receive the answer that sorry, no police are coming.”

Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, the sponsor of the measure in the Senate, said the bill protects peaceful protests, which he said includes things he opposes such as Ku Klux Klan cross burnings, flag burning, and athletes kneeling during the national anthem.

“What this bill does not protect is violence. This bill does not stand for violence,” Burgess said. “….Rights have limits and violence is where the limit is drawn. This bill is about preventing violence.”

In the final passage, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, was the sole Republican to join all the chamber’s Democrats in voting against the bill.

The April 14 amendment process and discussion featured questions about the details of the bills. Opponents said definitions were vague and could be used to arrest peaceful protesters if an event turned violent, whether by action of a few protesters or the deliberate actions of counter protesters.

Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, questioned whether someone who planned a peaceful event or deliberately attended such an event could be arrested if it turned violent, since they either planned the protest or intended to be there. She also questioned how police, if a protest became a riot, could tell peaceful from nonpeaceful protesters.

“Somewhere along the line, someone becomes violent and then everyone is swept up,” Polsky said.

Burgess said those at the event would have to intend to be violent to be arrested and police could distinguish between violent and nonviolent participants.

“I trust our law enforcement to be able to do their job,” he said.

Jones proposed an amendment that since protesters who commit battery on a police officer would be subject to a minimum six-month sentence, those police officers who use excessive force during a disturbance should face a similar sanction. He cited the example of a peaceful protestor at a Ft. Lauderdale event who was leaving when she was shot in the head by a rubber bullet.

Burgess agreed law enforcement officers should be held accountable in such cases, but said that should be in another bill, not HB 1.

Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, got the same response on his amendment to ban protests targeted at someone’s personal home. “You don’t take it to someone’s home,” he said.

Burgess also was questioned about the new criminalizing of mob intimidation and whether that was vague, including on what would constitute the threat of violence. Burgess said the law prevents three or more people from using violence or the threat of violence to force another person into an action or to say something.

He said the new cyber stalking ban prohibits the online publishing of someone’s personal identifying information in order to intimidate them.

The bill strengthens punishments for violence or property damage committed during a riot, provides that those arrested for violent rioting cannot be released from jail until they have appeared in court, allows a state attorney or city council member to appeal a police budget cut to the Cabinet, and provides an affirmative defense in a civil action for drivers who feared for their safety and hit protesters with their cars.

Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Ft. Lauderdale, introduced an amendment to strike that latter provision, saying it would encourage vigilantes to initiate violence at protests.

“It’s OK to voice your displeasure or disagreement, but it’s not OK to get violent about it,” he said.

Before the Senate met on the 14th to begin debating the bill, a coalition of opponents to both HB 1 and the voting legislation held a press conference to oppose both initiatives. They called on leading Florida corporations to oppose both HB 1 and the voting legislation, which is in SB 90 and HB 7041. Among other provisions, the bills would restrict mail-in voting and the use of drop boxes to collect those ballots.

“We want to kill these bills, we want these bills to die and we want the corporate community to help us to do so,” said Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of the Black Voters Matter fund. “You can’t continue to benefit from this democracy and not be responsive to those of us who are trying to protect and participate in a democracy. You can’t ignore the people who work in your company, the people that spend money on your businesses, the people that make the democracy possible.… You can’t continue to reap those benefits and not be responsive and accountable to those of us who make up your community, your employees, and your consumer base.”

Those at the press conference included representatives from the Florida Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, People Over Profits, the Equal Ground Education Fund, and the Florida Student Power Network.

“If you’re really on the side of defending black lives, put your money where your mouth is and put your heart where your mouth is, and please stand in solidarity with us to stop HB 1 and SB 90,” he said. “….What side of democracy, what side of fair assembly do you stand on?”


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