TALLAHASSEE — In what marked one of the most emotional moments of Florida’s 2021 legislative session, Senate Democrats on Thursday called on major Republican political donors to pressure Gov. Ron DeSantis to stop “anti-mob” legislation they deem racist, unconstitutional and partisan.
“Don’t sit on the sidelines, do something. Take a position,” Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, said in a call to grocery store chains, theme parks and utility companies, many of whom are big contributors to Florida Republicans. Many of them also contribute to Democrats.
The call to action came after nearly three hours of emotional and heated debate on the Senate floor that culminated with the Republican-led chamber passing the bill on a 23-17 vote. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg was the only Republican to vote against it.
After the vote, several members of the Senate Democratic caucus held a press conference wearing black T-shirts over their dress shirts and ties and under their suit coats. Senate Democratic Leader Gary Farmer of Lighthouse Point said it was meant to signify their “mourning of the death of the First Amendment.” He added that Republican leaders told them they could not wear the T-shirts during floor debate because they violated the “rules of decorum.”
The bill (HB 1), which would stiffen penalties for a host of existing crimes committed during protests as well as during state of emergency orders, is already leading to people wanting to organize, according to Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-Miami Gardens.
Jones, an organizer himself, said he received three to four text messages from activists who have organized in the past and they are asking, “What’s next?”
“Take it to the streets,” Jones said. “They’re ready.”
With the stroke of a pen
The bill, which is on its way to the governor’s desk, would take effect immediately upon being signed into law.
Among other things, the bill would allow people to sue local governments for damages that arise from a riot or unlawful assembly. It would also create new crimes including “mob intimidation” and “inciting a riot,” and any person who tears down a memorial dedicated to a historical person or event would face a second-degree felony that could be punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, has raised concerns about the timing, noting that usually law enforcement officers need time and training on how to enforce new laws. Pizzo, a former prosecutor, has also worried the bill is overly broad and as currently written would make arrests and convictions subjective.
House Republicans, who fast-tracked the proposal during the first half of the session, were the ones who crafted most of the bill, including the change that would make the bill take effect immediately upon being signed. Most bills usually take effect on July 1, the start of state government’s fiscal year.
DeSantis, who is positioning himself for re-election in 2022, is expected to sign the bill into law.
It was DeSantis who first proposed the idea after protests broke out across the nation over the death of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nine minutes. DeSantis pitched the idea at a press conference in Polk County in the heat of the 2020 election as he worked to deliver Florida to former President Donald Trump. He says it will combat “rioting and looting.”
“Every single person running for office in the state of Florida this year, whether you’re running for the House, whether you’re running for the Senate, you have an obligation to let the voters know where you stand on this bill,” DeSantis said at the time. “Are you going to stand with law and order and safe communities, or are you going to stand with the mob?”
Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, on Thursday said the impetus for the bill is the governor’s political aspiration.
“This is a mail piece for a re-election, for a specific base that wants it. This is not for the good of all Floridians,” she said. “We need to pass legislation for the good of all Floridians, not just those who want power.”
Senate Democrats are now trying to fight the proposal in the same way, by calling on “the business community,” including some of DeSantis’ donors, to take a stand on his proposal.
“If he doesn’t heed to the cries of the business community … well, then the next step is taking it to the great equalizer, the court system,” Farmer said. “Because this bill is clearly and blatantly unconstitutional, that it will eventually be struck down — if not by this Supreme Court, by the United States Supreme Court.”
Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, said several members of the Black Legislative Caucus on Monday released a statement calling on the state’s business leaders to speak out in opposition to HB 1, as well as against a voting reform package that they say is intended to suppress the vote of minorities in Florida.
The Black Caucus said it is asking businesses to honor their promise made last summer, when corporations spoke out in support of Black Lives Matter after Floyd’s death.
“Now, when Black and Brown communities are being threatened with laws that would disproportionately affect them, the silence from those businesses is a tacit endorsement of the disenfranchisement of those communities,” the legislators warned.
The road to passage
Throughout the lawmaking process, hundreds of advocates and Democrats in the Florida Legislature have said the bill will have a “chilling effect” on peaceful protests and disproportionately impact minorities, while Republicans have sad the bill is about “law and order.”
Farmer said that because of the pandemic protocols, the number of people who came to Tallahassee to protest the bill was muted, leaving a false sense of security for the Republican leaders who were behind it.
“This building is essentially closed to the public,’' Farmer said. “If this had been last year, the committee rooms and legislative rotunda “would have been full of people protesting and calling out the hypocrisy.”
The fight for the proposal drove much of the behind-the-scenes political jockeying during the first half of session. As the bill headed toward final passage, Republican leaders in both chambers also began to express more support for police reform bills, something Democrats complained was not well represented in HB 1.
On Thursday, much of the debate centered on those issues.
Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said the bill was “vindictive” and crafted in response to police brutality protests. Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, said the bill was about “silencing dissent.” Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, said it was a “partisan attempt to restrict the ability to protest.”
“You don’t want us on the streets. You don’t want us to kneel in games. You don’t want us to shut down the streets,” Jones said. “Our response to injustice is to protest, but your response is to criminalize it when the recourse for us is to turn to the streets to make our voices heard in this unjust system.”
Republicans, on the other hand, argue the bill is about “law and order.”
“Unfortunately, what we didn’t hear a lot about today is the victims of the violence, the businesses, the jobs and the livelihoods that were lost because of the riots,” said Sen. Danny Burgess, the Republican sponsor of the bill. “That’s what the bill is about. It’s not about peaceful protest. It’s about law and order.”
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, acknowledged that “racism absolutely exists” and that she will “100% stand up against racism” with her colleagues.
But, she said, the bill is about fighting violence not about racism.
“Hopefully it does what we hope it does and that is to stop the violence, the killings, the unintended deaths that happened from protests. The fires, all of that,” Stargel said. “And if it doesn’t, we’ll be back here year after years working on that.”
The racial justice protests in Florida since Floyd’s death have been mostly peaceful, DeSantis has acknowledged. But he said the bill is necessary to prevent such unrest from happening.
Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, voted in favor of the bill, but he said he did have some “heartburn” about the racial impact it could have.
“Can I tell you that this bill is not about racism? Not entirely. I can’t,” Hooper said. But, he said he would support the bill because he doesn’t believe Burgess intends it to be about race.
Jones criticized Republican colleagues who proclaimed they were not racists.
“If you say that, it has to line up with your actions,’' he said. “Their actions didn’t line up with that today. Because, at its core, House Bill 1 is racist.”
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