This is an unprecedented wave of progressive activism. Are Florida Democrats ready to seize it?

Turning activism into state policy is going to be difficult.
Protesters move down W Kennedy Blvd to join a larger gathering of protesters on Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in front of the Fox 13 Tampa Bay news station in Tampa.
Protesters move down W Kennedy Blvd to join a larger gathering of protesters on Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in front of the Fox 13 Tampa Bay news station in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published June 13, 2020

They’re slogans on signs for now, but they’re also real policy goals.

Police the Police

End Cash Bail

We Protect Us

Those and other messages are spreading across Florida in a surge of progressive energy. Thousands have taken to the streets in the past two weeks to fuel a campaign of anti-racism and anti-police brutality that’s been years in the making.

“You cannot reform, if you will, a racist system. You have to reconstruct it,” said Dwight Bullard, a former Democratic state senator from Miami on a virtual news conference call with Florida Democrats. Bullard is now the political director for New Florida Majority, which aims to politically mobilize the state’s minority communities. “You have to dismantle it and rebuild it from the bottom up.”

Interviews with state lawmakers from across the ideological spectrum, however, show that turning activism into state policy is going to be difficult.

The next scheduled legislative session, the two-month period when lawmakers pass bills, isn’t until next March. Already, Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, the incoming Senate President, says he can’t envision a scenario in which the Legislature passes any reforms that don’t have the backing of law enforcement.

The incoming House Speaker, Palm Harbor Republican Chris Sprowls, did not respond to requests for comment.

Facing what’s likely to be staunch opposition to major criminal justice or other types of reforms, some Democrats are urging lawmakers to be pragmatic.

“You’ve got to get some stuff passed,” said Rep. Bruce Antone, the Chair of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus. “When all of this stuff is done, the nation is going to be looking for some change. If we don’t get something done, this will all be for naught.”

Rep. Bruce Antone, D-Orlando.
Rep. Bruce Antone, D-Orlando. [ The Florida Channel ]

Antone, an Orlando Democrat, said he could see Republicans being receptive to officially requiring local law enforcement agencies to report use-of-force incidents that result in serious bodily injury or death to a state database. The FBI already has such a database, but a state law would keep the reporting permanent and mandatory, said Antone, who is not seeking re-election this year because of term limits.

Changes sought by protesters across the state are not easily captured in a single narrative. Although a few local leaders are emerging, the movement, which was sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer, is largely decentralized.

However, a bureaucratic tweak to a use-of-force database isn’t what protesters likely have in mind, either.

For Roman Le, a rising senior at Chiles High School in Tallahassee, changing the political landscape so it can sustain more progressive ideals is a long game.

"It's not a half-and-half ratio in Florida. It's like, one really progressive politician to 50 who just don't care," said Le, 17. "I have faith that with a lot of patience and time, as we grow older and start to change government ... it's a slow process but eventually we will get there.”

Le is an independent organizer who works with the Tallahassee Community Action Committee, a grassroots group that is helping lead the capital city’s protests against police brutality.

As a black, transgender man, he was inspired to join the movement after the killing of Tony McDade. Tallahassee police killed McDade on May 27 after approaching the black transgender man as a suspect in a stabbing that had taken place earlier in the day.

That movement, amorphous as it may be, has pushed some state Democrats to call for more sweeping action. Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, requested a special session last week to address police brutality. He recommended 10 criminal justice reforms that he said would make the system more equitable. Among them: delegating the investigation of police shootings to an outside agency; training officers on implicit bias and de-escalation; and giving new independent investigative powers to local citizen review boards.

When asked how he’d respond to those who might say his proposed reforms don’t go far enough, Bracy said he’d probably agree.

“I’m a lawmaker who has to deal with the realities of a Republican Legislature that hasn’t really shown much interest in dealing with any of these proposals or reforms,” Bracy said.

His call for a special session was rejected this week by Republican leadership.

“There is definitely a role for the Senate in helping to craft a comprehensive solution, but not a solution that can be achieved in a time-limited special session without more consideration and understanding of what will work to solve the problem," Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, replied in a letter to Bracy.

Sen. Janet Cruz and Rep. Dianne Hart, both Democrats from Tampa, also urge reforms, including the banning of police choke holds statewide.

The calls from Democrats echo proposals from Democrats in other red states. For instance, in Texas, progressives want an end to “broken windows” policing; the ban on choke holds; and a requirement that body cameras on officers remain on.

History shows that there is not much appetite for criminal justice reform in Tallahassee since the get-tough-on-crime era of the 1990s. This past session, St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeffrey Brandes proposed a slate of reform measures, only to see many of them die in committee.

Related: Hundreds of Florida inmates are serving drug sentences no longer in state law

Rep. Anna Eskamani, among the most ardent liberals in Tallahassee, noted that it’s not just Republicans who’ve blocked police reforms in Florida. The state’s larger cities, nearly all governed by Democrats, are where many of the highest profile cases of police brutality have happened.

“A lot of Democrats need to do a lot of soul searching,” Eskamani, D-Orlando said. “If you haven’t been working on this issue, you better start caring about it now.”

Eskamani said one of the things she kept hearing at protests was a criticism of police unions. Progressives and libertarians all over the country have argued that unions shield bad law enforcement actors from the consequences of their actions.

The Florida Police Benevolent Association, the state’s police union, has given a total of at least $28,500 to Democrats seeking legislative seats this cycle. (The union has given Republicans and conservative political committees at least $232,500 this cycle.)

Matt Puckett, the executive director of the state police union, said his organization works to make sure the standards for law enforcement are “on the highest level.”

“Bad cops don’t help anybody,” Puckett said.

Antone, the black caucus chair, said he doesn’t believe his colleagues should accept money from police unions anymore.

Rep. Shevrin Jones, a West Park Democrat running for state Senate, got $3,500 from the union this cycle for his campaign and an associated political committee. He said that although he has a good working relationship with the union, he wouldn’t accept contributions from them going forward.

“Not now. Considering the climate that we’re in, it would be very counterproductive and it also sends the wrong message,” Jones said, noting he’d recently met with union officials. “I would much rather us have a conversation about how we can change the culture of the police.”