No new ‘anti-riot’ bills in Legislature

Tallahassee Police Department lined up in riot gear near protesters on September 5, 2020 protest. Photo Courtesy: Alicia Devine/Tallahassee Democrat

The Florida Legislature has not introduced any bills related to protesting thus far in the 2022 session that got underway Jan. 11.

This comes after the Tallahassee Police Department arrested 19 protesters near the state Capitol in the summer of 2020. The protesters had marched to fight police brutality and injustices that arose from the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black individuals who lost their lives at the hands of police.

The arrested protesters became known as the “Tally 19” through social media posts.

The protest inspired the controversial House Bill 1 — also known as the “anti-riot” bill — introduced in last year’s legislative session. Promoted by Gov. Ron DeSantis, it is now a law in the state of Florida.

The bill states, “that law enforcement has a duty to respond to unlawful assembly, prohibits a person from damaging a memorial or historic property, changes the penalty of assault committed in riots,” and more.

Some believe that HB1 has affected some protest marches against police brutality in Florida.

Irfan Kovankaya, a protester and former member of the Dream Defenders, also believes that although HB1 has affected the protest marches in the streets, the work against injustices can take other forms.

“The work is so many things,” Kovankaya said. “The work is getting coats and jackets and other necessities to our homeless populations, the work is getting PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] and other supplies to people who need it. Yes, it’s protesting, but it’s media, mutual aid, speaking with legislatures.”

Ben Grant, current TCAC organizer and one of the protesters, shares his Tallahassee Community Action Committee colleagues’ feelings on HB1 and how the bill has affected their fight against injustices.

“There have been some TCAC members who have flat out said that there is the ambiguity around HB1 that they just don’t feel comfortable taking to the streets … it definitely has dampened the mood,” Grant said. “People do not want to take that risk.”

Last year, a Leon County jury found Grant not guilty of a felony battery on an officer, according to court documents. The Leon County Court jury nevertheless found Grant guilty of a misdemeanor charge of resisting arrest.

Grant is serving 100 community service hours and is on probation. He says he was relieved to be found not guilty, but still believes his trial was “unnecessary.”

According to Leon County Court documents, some protesters have also filed for diversion.

The diversion process in the state of Florida allows first-time offenders to divert their case from the criminal system for rehabilitation and other accountability programs.

Kovankaya has said he will not file for diversion. He believes there’s a reason why lawmakers have introduced no additional protest bills this year.

“For many white people and those in the Legislature, it was a moment,” he said. “It was a news story, it was a news cycle, it wasn’t anything they would think about unless people made them think about it. So, the fact that they have not passed any bills in relation to protest doesn’t surprise me.”

Grant believes that Republican lawmakers moved on to other bills promoting injustice that negatively affect the Black and minority communities.

“With the broader movement having died down over the last year it’s not really in the Republican zeitgeist to be anti-protest, so it’s just they have moved on to more cultural things like trying to fight against critical race theory,” Grant said.