The Florida Senate Committee for Appropriations is not a place known for high drama, but on Friday, its chair dedicated a full day to one bill. During that meeting, 65 residents from all over the state spoke passionately, almost threateningly. Senators gave moving, personal speeches.
Following eight hours of discussion, the bill, known as the Anti-Riot bill, House Bill 1 or Senate Bill 484, passed with a 11 to nine vote.
Its next stop is the floor of the full Senate.
Governor Ron DeSantis first proposed this legislation in September following a summer in which peaceful protests broke out following the death of George Floyd and others believed to have died from police brutality. Too many times, these events morphed into violent riots, in which businesses, churches and private property were set afire, police came under attack, motorists were dragged from their cars and beaten, and citizens trying to have a quiet dinner found themselves accosted by mobs.
Then on January 6, the U.S. Capitol was the scene of more violence as several protesters and a Capitol police officer were killed, and the Capitol was ransacked.
That week the Anti-Riot bill was brought forward. The stated goal of the legislation was to strengthen current penalties for those committing criminal acts during a riot and protecting law enforcement from “defunding police” efforts.
However, opponents see it as an effort to restrict people’s First Amendment Rights to free speech and peaceful assembly.
Those gathered in the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center to provide comments during the Appropriations Committee Meeting certainly saw it that way.
Speakers characterized the bill as “racist, fascist and draconian” as a “direct attack on democracy,” “anti-American,” and an “egregious abuse of power.”
Speakers implored the senators to reject the bill saying it would disproportionately hurt black and brown people and turn Florida into a police state. They said it was fiscally irresponsible and would permanently harm young protestors by saddling them with a criminal record simply for protesting or being around someone who turns violent during a protest.
A couple of speakers, including Sadie Carlson, let their emotional appeals degrade almost to the point of veiled threats.
She told the Senators, “This bill will not stop insurgency, it will lead to insurgency. You have been warned.”
Another told the Senators to “get it right or there will be consequences.”
The bill’s sponsor, Senator Danny Burgess (R-District 20) was asked repeatedly if such protests as the March in Selma or of the Suffragettes would be allowed under the bill. He assured everyone, they would, that the bill does not infringe on peaceful protests, but rather imposes stiffer penalties when events escalate to violence.
But opponents disagreed.
During debate, Senator Darryl Rouson (D-District 19) talked about his time as a protestor, and his concerns with the bill.
He said, “The purpose for protesting is to bring about real change, to disrupt the status quo, to bring attention and awareness to the light of equity, to the darkness of injustice, to motivate movement from stagnant discrimination, to interrupt unfairness and cause an eruption of justice. When a people feel wronged, they are inspired to protest. The people in my district are concerned … and worried about the chilling effect of this bill. Don’t tell me about what you say it means until I see it work. The devil in the details and is in the application of this bill. This is going to fall down to an application of the law, and we know that black and brown will suffer disproportionately because we’ve seen it. We know the data.”
There was not one single person who spoke from the Civic Center in favor of the bill. Many pointed to that fact as reason for the senators to vote against it, saying if they supported the bill they were voting against the will of their constituents.
But, near the end of the meeting the Chair of the Appropriations Committee Senator Kelli Stargel (R-District 22), indirectly addressed the seeming lack of support with her own personal comments.
“I hesitated to speak because it seems like when you do speak on these subjects, if you say just the wrong word — like a few years ago after Parkland, I said, ‘Thoughts and prayers are what were going to stop this evil’ — I was called every name in the book. I had hate mail, threats to my life. So you hesitate to speak out.”
“We’ve had a lot of very good conversation today on people’s thoughts on racism and experiences that I will never have. I fall into the category of a white person, so I don’t know the experiences that the black caucus has … That was a great conversation and I’m glad that we were able to have it, but this bill is talking about rioting and it’s talking about destroying people’s personal property.”
She continued, “I’m all for the right to free speech and I’m all for the right to protest and as much as I don’t like it when someone takes a knee during the national anthem, I protect their right to do it and I understand the desire to make a stand and to break the rules. But to destroy somebody else’s property, something that they have worked hard for, something that they have struggled for … I remember seeing a video when some of the riots were going on earlier after the death of George Floyd. A guy came out and he was an African American man, and he’s like, ‘this is my business. I worked hard for this and you’re burning down my shop. Why are you doing this to me?’
“This bill is about that type of behavior. When we watched that and the emotion of what was going on, I think we all felt the same anger and frustration at the brutality that we had seen and the way that people had been treated.”
She said that violence overshadowed and marginalized the issues that started the protests in the first place, “I protect that right to free speech, to protest, to the ability to rise up and to complain but I will not stand here and protect the right for someone to make that (point by) destroying someone’s car, by burning down someone’s building, or by getting in someone’s face and saying, ‘you need to say these words or I’m going to punch you.’ Those things I will not support. I don’t support.”
“That is what this bill is about,” she said.
But Senator Gary Farmer (D-District 34) disagreed, “It was on this day 53 years ago that Martin Luther King was buried. On this ominous, dark, dreary day in Tallahassee, I assure you that Dr. King is rolling over in his grave with tears in his eyes, watching this happen. This is a dark chapter in the history of this state and this chamber.”
He said the Democrats were united against the bill and implored the Republicans, “I hope there are a few (of you) that will surprise us and vote with us today and protect the right to peaceably assemble and not pass a law that could have horrific unintended consequences to the constitutional rights we hold so dearly.”
In the end, the only Republican to vote against the bill was Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff Brandes (R-District 24).