Florida's new anti-protest bill threatens an even tighter chokehold on Black and Brown communities

Florida's new anti-protest bill threatens an even tighter chokehold on Black and Brown communities
Comment: Conservatives in Florida are introducing a new anti-protest bill, but make no mistake about its intended target, writes Hiba Rahim.
6 min read
26 Jan, 2021
Protesters in Miami demonstrate against police brutality after the death of George Floyd [Getty]

The privileged elite don't protest. From "The Peasants' Revolt" in 1381, to slave rebellions too many to list, to rallies in America today, protests have belonged to the people. In the United States, the birth of a democracy ensured that people (selectively, of course) had a voice by guaranteeing the right to assemble. 

Our First Amendment guarantees that "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." 

But in Florida this legislative session, we see government leaders leading an attack on our democracy. Republican Governor Ron DeSantis drafted what is now House Bill 1, known as the "anti-protest bill". Despite its presentation, it endangers protesters and grants immunity to those who bring them harm. Galvanised by the demonstrations that erupted across America after the murder of George Floyd, HB1 is a direct attempt to stifle the voices of the masses.   

Its proponents claim that it is intended to target rioters and those who engage in disorderly assemblies. Among other things, they highlight the focus on criminalising damage to personal or public property; harassment and intimidation; and other offences including assault of a law enforcement officer. Many readers and lawmakers would agree that these breaches should be punishable transgressions, but the problem is much deeper.  

These violations of moral and legal statutes are already codified in the books of the law. Why, then, is Florida's conservative leadership working to rally support of criminal punishment that is already in place? 

Essentially, HB1 attempts to silence the masses and stop the progress of grassroots organisations

House Bill 1 creates a new classification of criminal offenses for these crimes. It raises the level of an offense from a misdemeanor to a felony, a far more severe conviction that has lifetime repercussions. It creates mandatory minimum jail sentencing for some of these offenses, a paralysing aspect of America's criminal (in)justice system that reform groups and judges have lobbied against for decades.

It takes away bail and enhances sentencing guidelines, increasing jail time and adding to our mass incarceration crisis.

Essentially, HB1 attempts to silence the masses and stop the progress of grassroots organisations starting with Black Lives Matter, their allies, and other minority groups. It exacerbates an already crippled system of policing, trying, and sentencing that disproportionately targets and excessively sentences Black and Brown bodies. 

Of the tens of thousands of individuals who rallied in hundreds of cities across America, only a small percentage of protests were violent or caused damage to property.  

Instead of addressing the fundamental trauma that has resulted from centuries of relegation and subjugation, some legislators will vote to perpetuate systemic racism in our state. Instead of mending the disparities from education to incarceration that maintain this vicious cycle of despair and violence, some legislators will broaden the schism with a law that was created with a very clear target. 

The conservative right has found great convenience in the recent insurrection at the Capitol vis-à-vis HB1. The likes of these far-right extremists and rioters, they said, would be scrutinised under these harsher penalties. 

Read more: Notes from Florida: An American Muslim in the Republican Panhandle

But the bill itself recognises the impetus behind it, and no, it was not the rise of the far right and white supremacy. 

Furthermore, America's existence is marred with instances of false accusations, false witnesses, and wrongful imprisonment. People in this country have witnessed centuries of cases where one race is overlooked or forgiven, while another is profiled and charged. 

If the anti-protest bill becomes a law, it is a direct threat to every protester, regardless of race, whether assembling peacefully or not. It puts so much discretionary power into an already unchecked police force.

In 1963, when 187 Black students in South Carolina peacefully protested against racist state laws in front of the state government building, law enforcement officials gave them 14 minutes to disperse or otherwise face arrest. When the protesters responded with song, they were convicted of breaching the peace and were arrested.

In Edwards v. South Carolina, 372 US 229 (1963), the Supreme Court condemned the state for attempting to "make criminal the peaceful expression of unpopular views." The fear of a disorderly crowd, or the perception of one, does not justify the arrest of protesters. 

Some legislators will vote to perpetuate systemic racism in our state

Historically, officers' perceptions have led to the unjustified arrests of thousands of individuals. In the last decade alone, officers' discretions have resulted in the unjust murder of dozens of Black men, women, and children. 

HB1 does not technically take away the right to protest. But if HB1 becomes law, a single agitator in a peaceful protest could lead to unwarranted arrests, felony charges, and lengthy prison sentences. 

If a Muslim woman is forcibly having her hijab removed by a police officer and she responds by pushing his hand away, she could be charged with battery and slapped with a prison sentence and a lifelong felony conviction.

If a university's Black Student Union organises a peaceful assembly to protest racial injustice, and if the student group calls for order at every phase of the protest, but if instigators or unrepresentative individuals cause chaos, under the RICO section of HB1, the organisers can be held liable and can be arrested and imprisoned. 

And if, during a protest, a person driving a car feels threatened, attempts to flee the area of the protest, and in the process runs over and kills protesters, he or she can be granted immunity. 

Yes, organisers of a peaceful protest can go to prison. And vehicular manslaughter can be exonerated. 

HB1 aims to establish a law that allows government to stifle the voice of the oppressed, smother the voice of the disenfranchised

HB1 aims to establish a law that allows government to stifle the voice of the oppressed, smother the voice of the disenfranchised, restrain the voice of people of good moral conscience, or otherwise severely punish dissent.  

The bill will be first presented for debate on Wednesday, January 27th  

It is deplorable to see that in the highest offices of state government, the knee that suffocated George Floyd has only inspired an increased chokehold on Black and Brown communities. 

It is now up to the legislators and pressure by the people to protect the constitutional liberties that many before us sacrificed sweat and soul for. And we are rallying. Peacefully. Until, perhaps, an ill-intentioned officer claims otherwise. 

Hiba Rahim works for the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. CAIR is America's largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organisation. She is a graduate of Florida State University's International Affairs Master's programme.

Follow her on Twitter: @rahim_hiba

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.