Activists across Florida are condemning the Florida Legislature’s approval of House Bill 1, the so-called anti-riot bill that Gov. Ron DeSantis put forward last year.
The bill won the final approval of the Florida Senate on Thursday and has become one of the most controversial items of the 2021 Florida legislative session.
DeSantis proposed the new legislation following the Black Lives Matter protests that occurred across the country last year following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The bill was officially filed in the Legislature the same day as the Capitol Hill riot in Washington, D.C.
“This is a very robust package,” DeSantis said when he outlined tougher penalties against protesters, most of which are contained in HB 1. “I think what it’s saying is we are not going to let Florida go down the road that some of these other places have gone.”
About the ‘anti-riot’ bill
The bill creates new crimes, including “mob intimidation” in which three or more people gather to threaten to force another person from taking a viewpoint against their will. It also creates tougher penalties for blocking public streets during an unlawful assembly or riot and makes it a crime to deface a historic monument.
There are other provisions that allow a person to sue a municipality for damage to their property during a riot and a provision that makes it harder for a person convicted of participating in a riot from pursuing civil action for anything done against them during the riot.
The bill passed largely along party-line votes, and Republicans have defended it, arguing the bill is about keeping “law and order” and not ending protests.
“I will stand with you arm-in-arm to make changes,” said Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, during the debate Thursday. “But I draw the line. I will not go forward and loot our mom-and-pop shops. I draw the line at burning buildings down that people’s life savings helped to create.”
How activists feel about HB 1
Activists across the state don’t see it that way.
Jamil Davis, a Pensacola activist and Florida lead organizer for Black Voters Matter, said he was disappointed in Republicans in the state Legislature for passing the bill.
“Last year, there was little to no incident in the protests that happened across the state,” Davis said.
Davis pointed to previous statements from DeSantis that said the bill was aimed at preventing what happened in other areas of the country last year, which Davis said shows that the bill was not needed in Florida.
Davis, who attended every committee hearing on the bill in Tallahassee, said very few members of the public ever spoke out in favor of the bill.
“This bill is going to disproportionately target African Americans and Latinx individuals who are protesting against systemic racism and police brutality,” Davis said.
Ben Frazier, president of the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, also went to Tallahassee to voice opposition to the bill, and when he learned the bill had passed, he posted online that “Jim Crow is alive and well. He is living in the Governor’s mansion in Tallahassee!”
Frazier called it “red meat legislation” prepared for consumption by the governor’s radical and far-right political base, adding it may be time to consider making a call for an economic boycott of Florida.
“It is racist, extremist, militaristic and dangerous,” Frazier said. “This is not an anti-riot proposal. It is actually an anti-protest proposal. This is just a Republican effort designed to stop the rising tide of protest prompted by the police murder of George Floyd. The governor wants to criminalize peaceful protestors who are merely exercising their constitutional rights.”
Cynthia Slater, president of the Daytona Beach branch of the NAACP, said the new law would have a chilling effect on demonstrations.
“It is a violation of our First Amendment right to peacefully protest,” Slater said. “I think this HB 1 is condemning peaceful protesters that could very well be arrested if one person in the crowd disrupts the protest. It’s flawed.”
Lauren Ogborn, founder and organizer of the Brevard Peace Keepers, an organization dedicated to police reform and better community-police relations, said the new law is concerning especially as her community is waiting for an announcement from State Attorney Phil Archer about whether to charge a sheriff’s deputy in the fatal shooting of two Black teens.
“I will be educating myself exactly on what I am and not allowed to do,” she said. “It’s scary when your government is stopping you from exercising your First Amendment rights.”
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Ogborn added that the law expands criminal liability to an entire group of protesters when “people who pretended to be on your side” join a protest with the goal to only cause chaos.
“We already knew there are people out there willing to do this, and now we need to be extra careful, and that’s sad because there are people who fought and died for our right to stand and protest for things we feel that need a public response,” she said.
Henry Duhart, a community activist who led Black Lives Matter protests on the Treasure Coast last year, said he wasn’t surprised by the bill’s passage.
“They promote it as law and order and say it’s not about racism,” Duhart said. “That’s the book of America.”
Akeem Clayborne, an organizer of protest in 2020 in Fort Walton Beach, said he believes the Legislature is more focused on responding to violent protests in other states than focusing on police brutality in Florida.
“They need to focus on the police and how can we fix the issue of them killing innocent Black men instead of trying to fight the ‘what,'” Clayborne said. “The ‘why’ is still going to be there. We’re still going to have issues.”
The bill has also drawn criticism from statewide organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union.
Micah Kubic, executive director of ACLU of Florida, wrote in the statement Thursday that HB 1 is racist, unconstitutional and anti-democratic.
“The bill 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,” Kubic wrote. “It was introduced as a political stunt after a year of historic protest, in which millions of Americans joined together to call for an end to the disparate killings of Black people at the hands of police.”
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State Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Nassau, one of the primary sponsors of HB1, said Kubic’s statement is offensive and false, adding that more white people are killed by police than Black people.
A study of Washington Post data on fatal police shootings in the USA published in 2020 by researchers at Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania shows that the rate of fatal police shootings for Black, indigenous, and people of color is constant from 2015 to 2020 and that they have “significantly higher death rates compared with whites in the overall victim pool.”
The analysis of 4,653 fatal shootings concluded, among other things, that Black people were killed at over three times the rate and Hispanics at 1.45 times the rate of white people among unarmed victims.
Byrd said Friday that people who protest peacefully have nothing to worry about. Byrd, an attorney, said he has represented clients who wanted their civil rights restored such as voting, owning firearms and running for office.
“If you peacefully protest and assemble, which is guaranteed by the constitution, you have no problem,” Byrd said.
Byrd also said the intention of the bill is not to take away people’s right to vote, and that whether it is right or wrong to lose that right after being convicted of a felony is a “separate debate” from HB1.
“This is not intended to take people’s right to vote away,” Byrd said.
The office of state Rep. Juan A. Fernandez-Barquin (R – Miami), one of the primary sponsors of HB1, declined a request for an interview.
Neil Volz is deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a grassroots advocacy organization run by former felons that focuses on criminal justice reform and the rights of convicted people. He said the measure will do more harm than good.
“Our view is that more criminal statutes on the books means more convictions, which means more disenfranchised people,” he said. “We think this bill will have a chilling effect on people engaging in democracy.”
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a Florida-based organization focused on protecting farmworkers’ human rights, wrote in a statement Friday it is opposed to HB1. Last Sunday, CIW and partner organizations rallied in front of a Wendy’s in Naples because the fast food chain has not joined their Fair Food Program.
“We are adamantly opposed to HB1, and are deeply concerned that, in practice, this bill will penalize, silence and endanger Floridians for exercising our First Amendment rights,” CIW stated.
DeSantis’ office has said he will sign the bill into law as it “strikes the appropriate balance of safeguarding every Floridian’s constitutional right to peacefully assemble while ensuring that those who hide behind peaceful protest to cause violence in our communities will be punished.”
Davis and other organizers are not giving up and are already organizing to advocate for the bill’s repeal.
“We’re just going to keep fighting it,” Davis said.
Florida USA TODAY Network reporters Omar Rodriguez Ortiz, Danielle Ivanov, Dan Scanlan, Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon, Frank Fernandez, Joshua Solomon and Savannah Evanoff contributed to this report.