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Republican Effort Cracking Down On Protest Violence Gets Closer To House Floor Vote

Police arrest several people in a crowd of protestors holding Black Lives Matter signs (9/12/2020).
Tom Flanigan
Law enforcement officers move in to arrest some of the march organizers after Tallahassee Police Chief Lawrence Revell declared the protest an "unlawful assembly." (Sept. 12, 2020)

Civil rights advocates are angry at Republican efforts to crack down on protests. Frustrations boiled over recently during a hearing on House Bill 1. Pushback against the bill is growing but Republicans are determined to get the bill through the legislative process.

Gov. Ron DeSantis promotes it as one of the strongest anti-rioting bills in the country. House Bill 1 increases the penalties for illegal activity during a protest. It cleared on a party line vote in the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee. The proposal arrived amid the summer’s social justice and Black Lives Matter protests, and DeSantis characterized it as an effort to curb violence, and property damage during protests. William Killgor, who joined some of those marches, believes the timing is not a coincidence.

“Anybody who votes to advance this measure today cares more about their sadistic law and order agenda than they do about black people poor people and oppressed people anybody who votes for this measure does not value freedom and not just freedom of speech but freedom of every resident to live a dignified and meaningful life here in the sunshine state invest in the people not in power, police and prisons,” Killgor said tersely.

Democratic Rep. Mike Gottlieb questions whether the bill would further burden local governments which often foot the bill for people in jails. The longer sentences it imposes, he says, mean added costs.

“Have you discussed with localities, municipalities, counties how they’re going to pay since your bill mandates a magistrate hearing? How they’re going to pay to house these individuals over night? A typical booking procedure is to be house overnight, see a nurse on the way in if necessary be medically cleared for jail, meals, beds, uniforms so on and so forth.”

Rep. Juan Alfonzo Fernandez-Barquin, the bill’s sponsor, says he has consulted with local law enforcement, but he didn’t address the cost issue.

“To the best of their abilities they try and plan ahead with their personal in order to accommodate such a large amount of people going in,” he responded.

Another provision of the bill is a response to calls to “defund the police”. It lets residents appeal local government decisions to remove funds from law enforcement agencies and reallocate them elsewhere.

The St. Petersburg police Department recently created a new initiative called the Community Assistance Liaison where it allocated funds to the initiative instead of hiring more police officers. Democratic Rep. Michelle Rayner asked Fernandez-Barquin whether St. Petersburg’s decision would trigger the appeal process as outlined in the proposal.

“The department lost $3.1 million in federal funding and $3.8 million that the city had for matching funds,” Rayner said, “so under your bill the bill that you’ve proposed would a resident who disagreed would they have a right to begin the appeal process?”

Fernandez-Barquin says yes, the move meets the threshold for review under his legislation.

“If there is a decrease in the operating budget then yeah, there would be grounds for it and it would be ripe for them to appeal, but it would go before the governor the attorney general the commissioner of agriculture and the CFO and it would be up to what they call the administrative committee which is up to them to determine whether or not that was a reasonable reduction.”

He says the measure lets law enforcement agencies to reallocate their funds as long as their operating budget remains the same.

The NAACP, First Amendment Foundation and others have issued statements opposing HB1.