‘Racist, Unconstitutional, and Anti-Democratic’: Florida Senate Passes GOP Anti-Protest Bill

“This bill is a disgrace to our state.”

By Kenny Stancil, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 4-16-2021

George Floyd protests in Miami, Florida on June 6, 2020. Photo: Mike Shaheen/Wikimedia Commons/CC

After Florida’s Senate Republicans on Thursday passed an undemocratic anti-protest bill—expected to be signed into law by its chief proponent, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, as early as next week—the state’s ACLU chapter condemned GOP lawmakers for “aiming to shut down political speech they disagree with in a direct attack on the First Amendment and at the cost of Black and Brown people.”

House Bill 1 “is racist, unconstitutional, and anti-democratic, plain and simple,” Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said in a statement.

Kubic said the bill—first proposed by DeSantis last September in response to nationwide protests against police violence and passed last month by Republican lawmakers in the state House—”was purposely designed to embolden the disparate police treatment we have seen over and over again directed towards Black and Brown people who are exercising their constitutional right to protest.”

“It is no coincidence,” Kubic continued, that HB1 and its companion bill, Senate Bill 484, “were introduced by politicians who harshly criticized” millions of Floridians and Americans for demanding “racial justice and police accountability.”

“This bill is a disgrace to our state,” he added.

DeSantis described HB1 as his legislative priority even though, according to the ACLU of Florida, 95% of the protests in Florida last year were peaceful and required no police intervention whatsoever. The bill heads to the governor’s desk as people in Minnesota and Illinois take to the streets to express opposition to recent police killings of unarmed individuals of color.

Characterizing the measure as an attempt to “chill and criminalize” people for exercising their First Amendment right to peacefully advocate for social change, the ACLU of Florida explained the full ramifications of the legislation:

By redefining “rioting,” the bill grants police officers broad discretion in deciding who could be arrested and charged with a third-degree felony at a protest and fails to provide protection for people who have not engaged in any disorderly and violent conduct. In Florida, a felony charge strips people of their voting rights.

This bill would also hinder local governments from determining how to allocate law enforcement resources to address critical needs in their local communities. It allows the Governor, with the Cabinet, to usurp control of a city budget and amend it to their liking at the appeal of any county commissioner or state attorney, regardless of whether local elected officials approve of changes made in the budget. It would also shield violent counter-protesters from civil liability for killing a peaceful protester or demonstrator with their vehicle, and make pulling down a Confederate flag a punishable offense for up to 15 years in prison.

As March For Our Lives Florida, a student-led group fighting to end gun violence, noted in a statement, “This bill emboldens and protects white supremacists who seek to injure peaceful demonstrators, threatens peaceful protestors with a felony, and penalizes local municipalities that choose to divert funds to Community-Based Violence Intervention/Prevention Programs.”

Progressives have been sounding the alarm that Republican lawmakers in multiple states are exploiting the deadly attack on the halls of Congress by a mob of then-President Donald Trump’s supporters to push for anti-protest bills, which critics say have nothing to do with stemming the tide of far-right extremism and everything to do with suppressing left-wing dissent and quashing protests against police brutality, fossil fuel pipelines, and more, as Common Dreams reported earlier this year.

Since the right-wing insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, “at least 13 states have taken up legislation to crack down on protests,” NBC News reported Thursday. “In addition to Florida, legislators in Arizona, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Washington” have introduced bills that critics say use the violence at the Capitol to justify the repression of Black Lives Matter and other social justice demonstrations.

In Florida, Trump ally DeSantis promoted HB1 and SB484 on January 6, “the same day insurrectionists were storming the Capitol,” as journalist Christopher Cook pointed out earlier this year. Journalist Iliana Hagenah wrote at the time that DeSantis used the riots in Washington, D.C., attended by several neo-Confederates, as a pretext to “make taking down Confederate statues a felony” in Florida.

The Intercept’s Alleen Brown and Akela Lacy have argued that the GOP’s push for new anti-protest bills around the country reflects an attempt to “rebrand” earlier anti-democratic efforts to crack down on civil disobedience, taking advantage of outrage over the far-right coup attempt to undermine demonstrations for progressive causes.

Florida’s anti-protest bill remains highly unpopular. According to a poll conducted last month by Florida Politics, 63% of the state’s voters view the legislation unfavorably.

HB1 has also provoked opposition across the nation. Last month, in a letter addressed to state House Speaker Chris Sprowls (R-65) and state Senate President Wilton Simpson (R-10), more than 100 law professors throughout the country denounced the proposal, characterizing it as unconstitutional and “morally unconscionable.”

And yet, as March For Our Lives Florida pointed out, Republican lawmakers passed the bill anyway, and DeSantis said in a statement that he “looks forward” to signing it.

“Despite opposition from a wide coalition of survivors of police violence, religious leaders, community leaders, business owners, students, and law enforcement agencies, the legislature prioritized the passage of this bill while millions of Floridians are still waiting for a living wage, Covid relief, affordable housing, and healthcare,” the group said.

“Instead of serving the people of Florida, the governor has chosen to serve Trump, the far-right wing of his party, and violent white nationalists in their efforts to silence Black and Brown voices calling for racial justice,” the group added. “March For Our Lives Florida, our members, chapters, and supporters condemn the passing of HB1 and the failure of our lawmakers in Tallahassee to listen to the needs of their constituents.”

According to the Miami Herald, “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.”

In a call to grocery store chains, amusement parks, and utility companies that tend to make significant contributions to Florida Republicans, state Senator Perry Thurston (D-33) said: “Don’t sit on the sidelines, do something. Take a position.”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

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