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Get the latest coverage of the 2021 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Florida Senate Committee Backs Protest Bill After Spirited Debate

This black, armored police truck is one of several parked behind City Hall in downtown Tallahassee on Saturday, September 5, 2020 ahead of planned protests following a grand jury report on the use of force in three officer-involved shootings.
This black, armored police truck is one of several parked behind City Hall in downtown Tallahassee on Saturday, September 5, 2020 ahead of planned protests following a grand jury report on the use of force in three officer-involved shootings.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said he worries the measure cracks down on dissent — a tenant of American democracy — and does so in a way that would hurt Black and minority voices.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has cleared a bill targeted at protests that turn violent. The measure is a priority of Gov. Ron DeSantis who announced it in the middle of social justice protests during the summer.

The Florida House has already approved its version of the bill, but the Senate version stalled for more than a month after Democrat and Criminal Justice Committee Chairman, Sen. Jason Pizzo refused to hear it. Senate President Wilton Simpson used a procedural move to break the log-jam, sending the House version bill to the chamber’s appropriation committee, where Democrats presented more than a dozen amendments in an effort to defang the bill.

Pizzo noted it would only take two Republicans to join Democrats in defeating the bill.

"Its the right thing to. And I'm going to tell you this: it's such the right thing to vote no, that none of you have even a half-ass reason to vote yes. Because none of you...have ever had to worry about what water fountain, what bus station, what school you had to go to," he said.

Only Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes joined Democrats in opposing the bill. Republican Sen. Danny Burgess, the bill sponsor, used a protest in St. Pete last summer that resulted in a Champs store being burned, to frame the bill's urgency. Fellow St. Pete Sen. Darryl Rouson, noted he watched and even participated in some of the protests.

"As I sat in my legislative office over the summer, I heard protestors at certain times of the day walking up and down Central Ave. and at one point I joined them as they blocked the intersection…to peacefully protest. And I encouraged them to be peaceful and protest," Rouson said.

He worries the measure cracks down on dissent — a tenant of American democracy — and does so in a way that would hurt Black and minority voices. The measure removes lawsuit immunity from cities and counties that don’t allow their law enforcement agencies to intervene. Rouson says he saw the aftermath of the Champs store burning.

“I walked that parking lot. I saw the shameful display of violence that occurred to that store. And I was there when the University of South Florida football players and students showed up to clean up what violent rioters messed up. But this bill would open the city of Tampa to litigation to determine whether they adequately sent police personnel or made a decision for the safety of their officers to not send them in, but wait.”

An amendment calling for a study on race and protests was also defeated, to the consternation of Russell Myer with the Florida Council of Churches who noted disparate treatment in black and white protestors, a trend also noted in an analysis of protests dating back to the 1960s by Business Insider.

“I’ve been in the streets since the killing of Trayvon Martin with many different groups. My observation is when white, evangelical pastors like me when pastors like me are in the streets with our black and brown siblings…but when is just been black and brown siblings in the streets, law enforcement uses excessive use of force to silence their voices.”

How law enforcement treats protestors and concerns about racial biases are front and center in arguments against the bill. The issue, says Pizzo is one that has to be considered, given how racially-charged the issue of protesting is.

"I’m a white, Christian male. I’ve had little if anything to protest in my life. I never had to go a different water fountain…I’ve had little if nothing to protest about. Black folks in America have had a reason, and therefore they’re almost always gong to be a [disproportionately] number of arrest and prosecutions because Senator Burgess and I have had nothing to protest in our lifetimes.”

Republicans are holding firm, despite some having private misgivings. In addition to increasing the penalties for crimes that happen during riots, the bill also creates new crimes like mob intimidation, cyber intimidation commonly called doxing — and the destruction of monuments and historical properties. The bill is also aimed at discoursing city and county commissions from cutting police budgets. It’s a direct response, Burgess notes, to calls to quote: “de-fund the police”. But Burgess maintains his bill is about protecting peaceful protests, not discouraging them.

“At the end of the day, I don’t believe this will deer or discourage peaceful protests," Burgess said, "because I firmly believe that the rioting that took place took away from the redress that was sought during the peaceful protests over the summer.”

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