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Guest Column
These bad Florida bills aim to silence racial justice advocates | Column
The governor wants to intimidate would-be protesters and criminalize the actions of organizers.
A protester cries as she prays with a crowd during a rally for the late George Floyd outside Barclays Center in New York in October 2020.
A protester cries as she prays with a crowd during a rally for the late George Floyd outside Barclays Center in New York in October 2020. [ JOHN MINCHILLO | AP ]
Published Feb. 19

It is a sad truth that there is always someone who will witness a tragedy and see an opportunity to exploit it for personal or political gain. All of America recently watched in disgust as a violent mob of white supremacists stormed our nation’s Capitol, desecrating the halls of Congress, smashing windows and looting as they went.

Consequently, a Capitol Police officer and three others died. It was heart-rending to watch for those who respect our country and its traditions.

Rep. Fentrice Driskell
Rep. Fentrice Driskell [ Provided ]

Gov. Ron DeSantis, however, saw something different. Even as most of the country was mourning the appalling events in Washington, the governor saw an opportunity to repackage his agenda of clamping down on peaceful protest and expanding his power. Within hours, he introduced SB 484 and HB 1, legislation that aims to silence racial justice advocates while shielding the police from meaningful accountability.

Let’s be clear: There are many statutes already on the books that allow for the prosecution of those who engage in violence, irrespective of the context. In other words, there is no actual need for this legislation. And there is also a clear line between peaceful protest and the kind of rampage that occurred in Washington.

Peaceful protests have been a critical part of advancing the cause of justice for generations. My mother was a schoolteacher for more than 35 years; the American history that I learned was rich with the stories of sit-ins advocating for racial equality. It embraced marches to end child labor, enact environmental laws, and expand workplace safety. And in most of our lives we’ve seen justice and the rights of all Americans advance through protests for everything from marriage equality to women’s rights.

When it comes to DeSantis’ effort, the real goal is to intimidate would-be protesters and criminalize the actions of organizers. A few examples make it clear. These bills would grant immunity to people who run over protesters — a form of retaliatory violence that increased across the country in 2020. They would expand so-called “stand your ground” provisions to regular citizens, which have been used to justify vigilantism like the killing of unarmed protesters who are simply “perceived” to be threatening. And they would create a new crime of “mob intimidation” in which as few as two people can be defined as a “mob” if they compel someone to assume or abandon a particular viewpoint in a manner that is “perceived” as threatening.

At the same time, DeSantis aims to take away power from local governments and shield the police from responsibility. Local elected officials know their communities best. They are closest to the day-to-day lives of their constituents and know the unique issues that they and their neighbors face together. Miami, Tampa and Tallahassee should be able to make their own decisions about community policing and funding, let alone smaller municipalities.

But DeSantis’ bills preempt local governments from managing their response to violent actions in their own cities and counties, and prevent any local attempts to reallocate police budgets by giving the governor’s office the power to consider objections to municipalities that reduce local police department budgets.

Florida would be far better served if the governor focused his attention on addressing the appalling COVID-19 crisis in our state that’s taking the lives of record numbers of our neighbors day after day. Or he could prioritize the urgent need for criminal justice reform — both righting the wrongs of our current system which have fallen disproportionately on communities of color and helping to address our state’s budget woes.

A warning here for other members of the Florida Legislature to consider when deciding whether they want to rush to join DeSantis’ misguided effort. Other politicians across the nation, such as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., also rushed to exploit the unrest in the Capitol; now, they are facing calls for their resignation from everyone from long-time conservative allies and from the editorial pages of their state’s largest newspapers.

There will be a price to be paid — certainly in terms of our constitutional freedoms, but quite possibly also in terms of human lives — if this legislation sees the light of day; and ultimately, in an electoral reckoning to be faced for all those who would put their own perceived political advancement above the common good.

Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a Democrat, represent’s Hillsborough County’s District 63 in the Florida House.