The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others at the hands of police officers sparked some of the largest protests in a generation in defense of Black Lives. Rather than heeding the calls for racial justice, lawmakers in over 30 states responded swiftly by aiming to criminalize protest itself. In Florida, fears that arose when Governor DeSantis pointed to protests as a top priority were realized when anti-protest legislation (previously known as “House Bill 1”) was introduced during the 2021 legislative session. One of the harshest anti-protest bills in the country, the bill makes an assembly that has been deemed by police to be an “aggravated riot” punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The bill’s language, which is exceptionally broad in what constitutes a riot and could trigger an arrest, was clearly intended to criminalize calls for police reform and discourage individuals from exercising their right to nonviolent protest.
As the proposed legislation progressed through the legislature, a clear and coordinated effort in opposition began to build through The Black Collective, a Piper Fund grantee, and other Black-led organizations in the state. They held public hearings and canvassed in neighborhoods to raise awareness of the bill as an intentional attack on Black communities for attempting to hold governments and police accountable for their actions. Piper Fund supported the coalition in conducting weekly calls to discuss strategies and prepare talking points for local and state officials speaking out against the act. Messaging focused on the historic role of the right to dissent, highlighting the civil rights movement and connecting the past to the present.
Environmental justice, reproductive justice, and women’s rights groups joined discussions on how to mitigate the effects of the anti-protest legislation, and as it became increasingly probable that it would pass, legal partners like the Community Justice Project, another Piper Fund grantee, started preparing for litigation. The bill was signed into law on April 19, 2021, and less than a month later, a federal lawsuit challenging the law was filed on behalf of The Black Collective and other coalition organizations. So far, the coalition has won a preliminary injunction that prohibits the state and other sheriff defendants from enforcing certain provisions of the law.
In the ruling, the judge highlighted that the broad definition of a riot in this bill could allow law enforcement to criminalize people gathering for a Juneteenth celebration. The case is ongoing, and the coalition has used the repeal effort in the 2022 legislative session as a communications tool to engage and educate Floridians through radio ads, printed flyers, and online conversations. One positive outcome was the defeat of HB 11, which would have made it legal to fine anyone approaching or remaining within 30 feet of a police officer after being warned to move away.
There is no doubt that more of these types of anti-protest bills will be introduced in Florida and around the country, but with the strong movement that has been built there and the support of Piper Fund, they will face significant opposition.