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Opponents Fear Florida Bill Designed To Instill 'Fear' In Protesters And Organizers


An official analysis concludes the bill would impact the right to free speech, but within acceptable boundaries. Opponents say it is severely overreaching.

After a long, hot summer of protests against police violence — following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville — Gov. Ron DeSantis announced in September that he would try his hardest to prevent any kind of unrest, of the type seen in other parts of the country, from happening in Florida.

Surrounded by law enforcement officers, the governor laid out what he called a “focal point” of the upcoming legislative session. The proposal he set forth would strip state funding from cities or counties that “defund the police” and would seek to charge organizers of protests that turn violent with “RICO” laws — statutes that are typically used to go after mafia bosses.

DeSantis said it would “probably be the boldest and most comprehensive piece of legislation to address these issues anywhere in the country.”

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Many of the proposals that DeSantis presented in September — including those listed above — are nowhere to be found in a pair of bills that have been filed in the Florida Legislature.

But protest organizers and civil liberties advocates have raised alarm at the new legislation that DeSantis is nonetheless backing. They say the proposed “Combating Public Disorder” law would strike at the very heart of the constitutionally-protected right to peacefully protest.

One part of the bill would allow prosecutors to bring felony charges to any “person who willfully incites or encourages” a protest that turns into a riot, or one that results in the “clear and present danger of a riot.”

Opponents say that this provision is meant to discourage protests from being organized in the first place, since doing so could lead to criminal liability.

“If something happens on your watch, now you’re being held liable, even though that was not your intention,” said Melba Pearson, a civil rights attorney and former Miami-Dade prosecutor. “There’s no other crime that creates that kind of nexus.”

It’s not just a hypothetical situation. Police departments have already been gathering information and monitoring groups that organize protests across Florida.

In June, the Miami-Dade Police Department arrested four people during a peaceful protest at Florida International University. About a dozen people were sitting on a sidewalk when police declared the protest an “unlawful assembly.”

The charges against all four individuals were later dropped after WLRN reported that a 911 call contradicted what arresting officers wrote on the arrest reports.

But one part of the episode in particular is worth noting.

'It's About Oppression'

Interrogation tapes of those four individuals obtained by WLRN through a public records request show Miami-Dade officers trying to gather information about a group that helped organize the protest.

“We need to know from you what happened and how you ended up the way you ended up today,” says one officer. Another presses: “What is Dream Defenders?”

The Miami-based advocacy group, the Dream Defenders, helped publicize and organize the protest. If the proposed law was in effect when the June protest happened, the group might have faced criminal charges for their role in organizing the protest, even if the other charges were later dropped.

“The fear is the point of all of this,” said Nailah Summers, a co-founding member of the Dream Defenders. “Psychologically it’s supposed to be chilling, and it will be.”

Gov. DeSantis has called out the group by name for the political stances they take, labeling them “radical.” The Dream Defenders has chapters in many cities across Florida, and Summers said she feels like the proposed bill is a direct attack on leftist organizations like her own.

The Dream Defenders is a socialist group that also lists "fighting for a world without prisons, policing, surveillance and punishment" as a key part of the group's ideology.

“There’s just no mistaking it’s about oppression,” said Summers. “It’s about people on the left, it’s about Black Lives Matter. It’s about racial justice. It’s about socialism, if you want to call it that.”

State Rep. Juan Alfonso Fernandez Barquin, of Western Miami-Dade, introduced the legislation in the Florida House.

He did not respond to multiple calls and emails to speak for this story.

WLRN contacted every co-sponsor of the legislation through multiple methods, and none responded to requests to comment.

That includes GOP Reps. Mike Giallombardo, Scott Plakon, Spencer Roach and Stan McClain. Rep. Brad Drake’s office told WLRN that he “does not do interviews.”

On the Florida Senate side, the sponsor of the companion bill GOP Sen. Danny Burgess did not respond to multiple calls and emails requesting to speak for this story.

In January, however, Rep. Fernandez Barquin spoke about the legislation before a House committee.

“When an individual is in a group, that person loses the personal sense of responsibility and the responsibility is split amongst the group. That individual in that group is capable of doing things that they otherwise would not do if they were by themselves,” Rep. Fernandez Barquin told the committee.

Asked if he thought that the bill could disproportionately impact Black and Latino communities that protest in Florida, he said: “It’s not my intention and I certainly hope not. The intent here is to prevent violence.”

Fernandez Barquin said the thing that made him file the bill was watching unrest unfold on television in places like Portland and Seattle over the summer, and to prevent that sort of thing from ever making its way to Florida.

“I would say what blew the top off was what happened January 6th, and made me decide that yeah, I have to go forward with this,” he added.

"The intent here is to prevent violence.”
State Rep. Juan Alfonso Fernandez Barquin

Fernandez Barquin filed his bill at 7:40 p.m. on January 6, as members of the U.S. House and U.S. Senate were still locked outside of their chambers during the insurrection in the U.S. Capitol.

DeSantis introduced the idea for the bill months before the Capitol riot, but since then he has cited it as one reason for why the bill should be passed.

“This stuff is happening in our country, and we have to understand it. I don’t care why you’re doing it, you’re not doing it here,” DeSantis said at an event in The Villages in January.

Protesters hop a wall separating Miami's Wynwood neighborhood from I 95, in June of 2020.
Daniel Rivero
Protesters hop a wall separating Miami's Wynwood neighborhood from I-95, in June of 2020.

The Details Of The Bill

The proposal would do a number of additional things. It would:

  • Make it a felony to block roads during a protest
  • Make so-called harassment of non-protesters in public places a felony
  • Block local commissions and mayors from cutting police budgets
  • Criminalize groups of three or more people acting with the “common intent” to “compel or induce” another person to “assume or abandon a particular viewpoint.”

And perhaps the most controversial part: It would give anyone who kills or injures someone else an affirmative defense in any civil lawsuit if they hurt or kill someone participating in a protest that turns violent — or one that causes property damage over $5,000.

“There’s just no mistaking it’s about oppression. It’s about people on the left, it’s about Black Lives Matter."
Nailah Summers, a co-founding member of the Dream Defenders

“You can drive over me and say you felt threatened. And that’s why you drove your car over me. If you disagree with my politics, you can shoot me and say — I felt threatened,” said Ben Frazier, the president of the Northside Coalition, a Jacksonville activist organization that focuses on social and racial justice.

“It is blatantly unconstitutional as I see it,” he continued. “It is designed to stop those of us who disagree with the ideals and ideology of racism and white supremacy from exercising our First Amendment constitutional rights to assemble and speak out.”

Lastly, the bill would increase the penalties for a variety of crimes associated with civil disobedience and, in many cases, keep people in jail longer before they are able to be released by a judge or by bail — regardless of whether they have been convicted or not.

“By enhancing these charges by at least one felony class, some individuals would be facing double the amount of possible prison time,” said Carrie Boyd, the policy director of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Florida. “That is a steep, steep deterrent for anyone even wanting to take the perceived risk of enjoying their fundamental constitutional right to protest. And that is the intent of this bill.”

A 2014 Black Lives Matter protest in Miami included a so-called 'die in' in the middle of the street. A die-in is when people lay on the ground to protest police violence.
Daniel Rivero
A 2014 Black Lives Matter protest in Miami included a so-called 'die in' in the middle of the street. A die-in is when people lay on the ground to protest police violence.

An analysis of HB1, written by non-partisan Florida House staffers, acknowledges that the bill regulates the right to free speech but concludes that the impact is within acceptable limits.

The analysis finds that while it may “constitute a regulation on the time, place, and manner of expression, the bill does not prohibit or prefer any specific content and is intended to prevent public disorder while protecting the free speech of lawful protestors.”

For Summers of the Dream Defenders, the writing is on the wall. The odds of the Republican-dominated trifecta of state government — of the governor, House and Senate — power failing to deliver on what they have deemed a top priority seem vanishingly small. Republicans have the numbers to pass the bill, even if every Democrat in the Legislature objects.

Looking forward, she said the bill presents all kinds of constitutional and moral questions for groups in Florida and beyond.

“How does that change the state of Florida? How does that set a precedent nationally for what protest looks like post-2020?” she asked. “They're going to jam this through. Absolutely. And so, everybody who is against it — and it's a lot of people — are going to have to figure out what to do when it does [pass]. And we need to start figuring it out now.”

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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