Tomas Kennedy, one of the more active civil rights organizers in Florida, helped put together a large-scale protest at the Florida capitol yesterday in response to the flurry of right-wing bills passed during this year's legislative session. As the Miami Herald first reported Wednesday, Kennedy and a crew of about 150 activists shouted, chanted, and unfurled banners inside the Florida House's legislative chamber and capitol rotunda to cast shame on Florida lawmakers.
As a result, Kennedy says, the capitol's sergeant at arms informed him he's been banned from the public building for a year and can't come back for 2020's session.
"Yes, we disrupted, but we have the First Amendment, we weren’t violent, we weren’t aggressive, we didn’t even yell, 'Shame on you,'" says Kennedy, who works as the legislative director for the Miami-based Florida Immigrant Coalition. "We were respectful throughout the session. Maybe they could have just kicked us all out. But it felt like they picked out the grassroots leaders and said, 'You guys aren’t coming back for next session.'"
The sergeant at arms' office did not respond to messages from New Times yesterday evening.
The bills passed during the 2019 legislative session — the first since Ron DeSantis became governor after running an anti-immigrant, nativist, and racist campaign — have been extremely right leaning. Among others, the Legislature this month passed bills transferring $130 million from the public school system into a voucher program that lets kids attend private or religious schools instead. (The Tampa Bay Times editorial board yesterday called the bill a "death-sentence for Florida public schools.") The Legislature passed a law that lets teachers carry guns in schools. The state GOP is angling to pass a bill that would force the formerly incarcerated to pay exorbitant fees before regaining their right to vote, a scheme critics have called a 21st-century poll tax.
The state GOP has also proposed a series of pro-business "preemption" bills that prevent local towns from setting their own laws. Among other examples, Florida lawmakers this year passed a law prohibiting local cities from banning plastic straws. DeSantis has yet to sign that bill.
Most notably, lawmakers are nearly ready to pass anti-sanctuary legislation that would force local cops to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. At the moment, no "sanctuary cities" exist in Florida, but the bill stipulates that all local jails statewide must honor requests to hold immigrant detainees on the federal government's behalf. Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, say this practice is unconstitutional and makes America less safe, since immigrants tend to report fewer crimes to police out of fear they may be deported.
I was banned from the Florida Capitol for a year for fighting to protect Florida’s families and our democracy. This was retaliation because people directly impacted by harmful legislation made their voices heard today in Tallahassee. #NoHateInFlorida pic.twitter.com/INVk8CkFz6— Thomas Kennedy (@tomaskenn) May 1, 2019
.@tomaskenn from .@FLImmigrant putting his body on the line for his immigrant community! We see you we love you! #protectimmigrants #StopSB168— Karen (@Ohhelloimkaren) May 1, 2019
.@NewFLMajority .@UNITEDWEDREAM .@unitehere .@seiufl .@1199SEIUFlorida .@OrgFlorida .@MiamiWorkersCtr .@HCCapopka .@NextGenAmerica pic.twitter.com/Y9aJesiLyp
Protests are fairly common inside public parts of the capitol, including the main rotunda. But visitors are typically forbidden from actually disrupting legislative meetings. Kennedy said that of the activists with him, roughly 15 volunteered to knowingly risk detention or arrest by unfurling a banner inside the main legislative chamber that read, "STRONG HEARTS FIGHT BACK." The Herald reported that one protester was ultimately arrested.
Kennedy, meanwhile, says he spent about 45 minutes with a group in the rotunda chanting and singing songs. As the group was getting ready to move to DeSantis' office, Kennedy says, the capitol's sergeant at arms confronted him.
"I've been fixing to trespass you, boy," Kennedy says the officer told him. After they verbally sparred for a few seconds, Kennedy says, the cop told him he was "trespassing right now" and that it was "time to leave or get arrested."
Kennedy says he was told he can't come back for a year except on "official business" with lawmakers. The activist provided New Times with a photo of a trespassing warning he says the security guards showed him:
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"That's undemocratic in my opinion," Kennedy says.
This isn't Kennedy's first act of civil disobedience. He was arrested last July after staging a sit-in outside of ICE's main South Florida facility in Miramar. Later, ICE retaliated by banning Kennedy and another activist, Bud Conlin, from visiting any immigrant detainees in the future.
"It was a very empowering experience, being in a large crowd out there," Conlin told New Times in September. "We took over the street. I'm glad I did it."