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On Wednesday, community organizer Keirten Nivol traveled to the Florida Capitol to speak out against a bill that critics say would censor the freedom of speech of protesters. But after using the word “fuck” during an impassioned plea to lawmakers, he was escorted out by security, issued a trespass warning, and barred from returning to the Capitol until the end of the legislative session.
The dustup transpired during a meeting of the Florida House’s Justice Appropriations subcommittee, which was discussing House Bill 1. The bill — an official version of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposed Combatting Violence, Disorder, and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act — would place harsh sanctions on anyone deemed to be participating in a riot and would restrict the ability of municipal governments to reduce police budgets.
Nivol, a member of the social-justice organization Dream Defenders, criticized the legislation, saying it seems to target people of color who protest on behalf of their communities.
“The goals of this bill, as is, is to make organizing and our freedom of speech a crime, when y’all could have just told Black folks to fuck off. Like, if y’all didn’t want us to have a livelihood…,” Nivol said before he was cut off. He was then escorted out of the room.
The proposal from DeSantis and state Republicans has received widespread criticism from Democrats, civil-rights groups, and news outlets across Florida for being overly broad and quashing protests while infringing on free speech.
Dozens of speakers attended the subcommittee hearing on Wednesday to speak out against the bill. Civil-rights groups, including Dream Defenders and the Black Lives Matter Alliance of Broward, sent members to speak, as did environmental groups like the Sierra Club of Florida, which fear crackdowns on their own protests.
Many speakers decried the bill’s broad language, which fails to narrowly define what constitutes a “riot” and what separates such incidents from protests.
Others called the bill unnecessary, saying Florida already has laws that prohibit unlawful assembly and instances of looting. One speaker, pastor Kimberley Pullings of Jacksonville, asked why the bill had been prioritized ahead of legislation to address police violence.
“Where are the bills to address the continuing civil-rights violations by police?” Pullings asked before being escorted away from the microphone, having exceeded her one minute of allotted time.
While the official filing of the legislation came on the heels of the attack on the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump demonstrators in January, DeSantis originally proposed the bill last September after a summer of Black Lives Matter protests that followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
When Nivol stood up to speak, he called the legislation the “DeSantis censorship and repression bill.” After uttering the comment accusing lawmakers of telling “Black folks to fuck off,” subcommittee chairman Rep. Scott Plakon, a white Republican from Seminole County, told Nivol he would be removed from the room and advised security personnel to issue him a trespass warning.
“You will not use profanity in the House of Representatives here in Florida,” Plakon said.
After a long round of public comment, members of the subcommittee voted 10-5 in favor of the bill, which now moves on to the House Judiciary committee.
Nivol tells New Times he sees the bill as a thinly veiled affront to Black people who protested for social justice last year, which is why he said what he did.
“It really is an F-you to Black people all over the country who got beaten, arrested, and killed during protests last summer,” Nivol says. “They’re trying to silence us because we have the power to sustain ourselves.”
While Florida House rules do not specifically mention profanity, chairs of committees and subcommittees have the authority to maintain order and decorum during meetings.
But Democratic state Rep. Anna Eskamani pointed out the irony of cutting off Nivol while he was speaking out against a bill that’s been criticized as censorship.
“Censoring the public while pushing a bill that censors the public. Very on-brand for this bill’s biggest supporters,” Eskamani tweeted.
Censoring the public while pushing a bill that censors the public. Very on brand for this bill’s biggest supporters. https://t.co/yH35BT220x
— Rep. Anna V. Eskamani ???? (@AnnaForFlorida) March 3, 2021
The Dream Defenders have a history of high-profile protests at the Florida Capitol. In 2013, the group held a sit-in inside the Capitol building for 31 days and 30 nights after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in 2012. The group was founded in 2012 following the death of Martin, a 17-year-old Black high school student in Sanford.
Dream Defenders co-director Rachel Gilmer says the group’s members will continue to speak out against DeSantis’ bill.
“Our members are clear what this bill is about and what it’s meant to do: silence them. They’re definitely not to be quiet about it,” Gilmer wrote in a statement to media. “Keirten did what our members do all over the state — fight injustice and speak truth to power.”
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