Florida Senate signs off on controversial protest bill

Republican lawmakers handed Gov. Ron DeSantis one of his top legislative priorities Thursday, with the Florida Senate giving final passage to a contentious law-and-order measure spawned by nationwide protests after last year’s death of George Floyd.

The sweeping proposal, titled "Combating Public Disorder," would create a new crime of "mob intimidation," enhance penalties for riot-related looting and violence and create an affirmative defense for individuals who injure or kill violent protesters.

The Senate devoted nearly three hours Thursday to an emotionally charged debate on the measure (HB 1), with a single Republican --- Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg --- ultimately crossing party lines and joining Democrats in voting against the bill.

PREVIOUS: Florida lawmakers target protests; opponents say free speech is on the line

Millions of Americans took to the streets following the death of Floyd, a 36-year-old Black man who died in May after then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for at least eight minutes. Chauvin is now on trial for Floyd’s alleged murder.

During Thursday’s Senate debate, Democrats made impassioned speeches as they attempted to paint a portrait of systemic racism’s impact on Black people.

"Those demonstrations were not just about George Floyd. Those demonstrations were built-up anger of 400 years of what Black Americans have been dealing with," said Sen. Shevrin Jones, a West Park Democrat who is Black. "You don’t want us in the streets. You don’t want us to kneel at (football) games. ... So our response to the 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."

DeSantis announced a framework for the legislation in September, as he drummed up political support for former President Donald Trump.

"We’ve seen disorder and tumult in many cities across the country," DeSantis, flanked by law enforcement officers, told reporters during a Sept. 21 news conference in Winter Haven. "I think that this has been a really, really sad chapter in American history."

The proposal followed Trump issuing a call-to-action to governors in the aftermath of protests that grew deadly last summer. But critics of DeSantis say the Republican governor will use it as an arrow in his conservative quiver as he seeks re-election next year.

"This is not a solution. This is a mail piece for a re-election, for a specific base that wants this," Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, said.

The bill forced the Republican-controlled Senate to have an at-times uncomfortable conversation about racism, members on both sides of the aisle noted Thursday.

MORE: 11 face felony charges from night of civil unrest; more charges likely in coming weeks, state attorney says

"I get it. And if I were in your shoes and I’d had your experience, I would be down on this bill today, too," said Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, adding that he became "physically ill" when he saw the video of Floyd’s death.

"Can I tell you that this bill is not about racism? Not entirely. I can’t, no. But I do believe in my heart that at the end of the day, we are a nation and a country of law and order," Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, said before he voted in favor of the measure.

Bill sponsor Danny Burgess, an affable Zephyrhills Republican who is a U.S. Army Reserve officer, said he was speaking from the heart when he defended the proposal on Thursday.

"I understand that I will never know the pain and the reality that some know," Burgess, a lawyer, said, adding, "although we may have come a long way, we still have a long way to go." 

"That injustice still exists whether it’s on the books or in our actions and our words and our deeds and our hearts. So we have to continue to fight against that," he added.

Burgess argued that the proposal would not quash First Amendment rights, which include the right to peacefully protest.

"What this bill does not protect is violence," he said. "Rights have limits, and violence is where the line is drawn. This bill is about preventing violence."

The bill, passed in a party-line vote by the House last month, proposes a host of changes to criminal and civil laws. The new crime of  "mob intimidation" would make it unlawful "for a person, assembled with two or more other persons and acting with a common intent, to use force or threaten to use imminent force, to compel or induce, or attempt to compel or induce, another person to do or refrain from doing any act or to assume, abandon, or maintain a particular viewpoint against his or her will."

The bill also addresses the destruction of "memorials," an issue that has drawn heavy attention after statues of people associated with slavery were torn down or destroyed following Floyd’s death.

The bill would create a new felony crime that would prohibit people from defacing, damaging, destroying or pulling down memorials or historic property if the damage is more than $200. The bill would require people convicted of the crimes to pay for restoration or replacement of the property. 

The measure also would create a new felony crime of "aggravated rioting" that carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.

House and Senate leaders released the proposal on Jan. 6, hours after Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in a failed attempt to prevent certification of states’ election results in Trump’s loss to President Joe Biden.

But Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, argued Thursday that the proposal "is not and never has been aimed at that insurrection."

"It was always aimed at Black Lives Matter. It was dreamed up and carried out by individuals who never had to protest," Thurston, who is Black, said. "The bill is designed to promote a personal agenda. It was designed to get at those individuals marching in the streets across this nation."

Speaking to reporters following Thursday’s floor session, Thurston, Jones and several other Democratic senators donned black T-shirts atop their dress shirts to symbolize the passage of the controversial bill.

"At its core, House Bill 1 is racist," Jones said. "I stand here with my colleagues today, not just mourning the death of our First Amendment rights but also mourning the death of our democracy as it slowly slips away from us."