Black lawmakers in the House launched a sit-in protest in the Florida Capitol on Thursday. Several state Representatives wearing T-shirts reading “Stop the Black Attack” disrupted proceedings ahead of a vote on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ controversial redistricting plan.
The lawmakers soon broke out in a chorus, singing “We Shall Overcome.” Rep. Tray McCurdy, an Orlando Democrat, read a statement that made clear the Black Democrats intended to sit in the chamber as long as possible.
“We will not be denied,” he said, beginning to lead a chant. “We will occupy this floor.”
Ultimately, the protest lasted a little over an hour. Then Speaker Chris Sprowls gaveled Session back in and held a vote over the chants of McCurdy and Rep. Angie Nixon, a Jacksonville Democrat. The map passed by a 65-34 vote.
Speaker Chris Sprowls issued a statement criticizing the disruption of the Special Session.
“Today, a group of Representatives decided to hijack the legislative process, violating House Rules and interfering with the rights of their fellow elected colleagues to debate important legislation before the body,” Sprowls said. “We saw a group of Florida House members with microphones at their desk, a statewide audience, and an opportunity to vote on behalf of their constituents, and they instead chose to pretend they had to stage a protest to be heard.
“House Democrats requested and agreed to 75 minutes of debate time on Congressional maps, and they used the entire time. They did not request any additional time prior to the group’s disruption. After offering multiple opportunities to debate the bills in an orderly way, we carried on and completed our Constitutional duty to pass a Congressional map. Ultimately, this group tried to drown out the voices of the other elected Representatives and the 22 million Floridians they represent.”
The protest broke out as Democratic debate time against the maps expired. That occurred as Rep. Yvonne Hayes Hinson, a Gainesville Democrat, discussed the history of the Voting Rights Act and the historic oppression of Black voters.
“We are abdicating our constitutional responsibility and subverting our power to him. He further complained that this inclination to spend other people’s …” Hinson said before being cut off.
The House met in Special Session to consider a map (P 0109) submitted by Alex Kelly, DeSantis’ Deputy Chief of Staff.
Analyses by the Legislature show the map will reduce the number of Black performing districts from four to two. That’s done by breaking up the configurations of seats held by U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Tallahassee Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Val Demings, an Orlando Democrat running for the U.S. Senate this year.
The Demings district remains a Democratic one, but arguably no longer one that will have a Democratic Primary controlled by Black voters. Lawson’s district was eliminated and replaced with two Republican-leaning Jacksonville area districts.
Lawson, for his part, issued a statement supporting the protesting lawmakers.
“Florida House Democrats demonstrated courage today by protesting the DeSantis’ drawn map on the floor,” he said. “They comprehend that this map violates the Voting Rights Act along with the U.S. and Florida Constitutions. Minority voters in Florida deserve congressional representation. It is astounding that someone tasked to lead the state is playing partisan politics for his own political aspirations.”
Rep. Dotie Joseph, a North Miami Democrat, led a prayer on the floor during the protest.
“The ball is in your court, Lord,” she said. “It is up to you now.”
Other Democrats, including Minority Leader Democratic Leader Evan Jenne, also participated in the sit-in.
Rep. Angie Nixon, a Jacksonville Democrat, said the lawmakers had a simple demand before they would leave the floor: that the Legislature vote on maps drawn by the Legislature.
In an unprecedented move this year, DeSantis submitted his own cartography for consideration in the Legislature. He vetoed maps approved by the lawmakers in March.
While no Democrat in the House voted for those maps, several said they at least came from a defensible process. “Bring back the other maps,” said Rep. Anika Omphroy, a Lauderdale Lakes Democrat, on the floor.
During the demonstration, Florida Politics called for protesters to speak with press in the galley, and many obliged.
Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby, a St. Petersburg Democrat, said Democrats would not leave until the House considered maps previously approved by the Legislature. Many members called for the Senate map (S 8060), approved by the upper chamber in January, to be brought forward. Democrats offered that map as an amendment in committee.
“We want to make sure there is Black representation … We want the very same Senate maps Sen. Ray Rodrigues said were legal and lawful,” Rayner said.
Rep. Fentrice Driskell later elaborated that the Senate-passed map did the best job of any voted out of a legislative chamber at preserving minority seats. The House maps, which ultimately were approved by the full Legislature before the Governor’s veto, were made on the presumption Florida has just three Black-performing seats now. The Senate prioritized keeping Black representation in CD 10, and also kept a configuration similar to the existing CD 5 in North Florida.
“It at a minimum kept it the same as the benchmark maps, the districts that were already protected Black districts, and that’s something that we very much needed to do,” she said.
Democrats said leaders of the Legislative Black Caucus and Democrats negotiated an end to the protest.
Several Republicans during the demonstration took to social media and compared the protest to the Jan. 6 insurrection in 2021.
“House Democrats are staging an insurrection on the House floor to obstruct the democratic process. Shameful,” tweeted Rep. Spencer Roach, a North Fort Myers Republican. “What we witnessed was not public participation in a policy debate: it was a temper tantrum.”
“I hope the insurrection on the House Floor is dealt with appropriately,” posted Rep. Randy Fine, a Palm Bay Republican, who also tweeted the hashtag #LockThemUp.
During the protest, The Florida House shut down a direct video feed to the Florida Channel, a state-run media normally broadcasting all proceedings on the floor. As protesting lawmakers posted social media updates from the floor, the chamber’s Wi-Fi network also was disconnected from the internet.
At a news conference led by Legislative Black Caucus members, McCurdy and Nixon said Democrats knew they could not defeat the map with votes. But organizers of the demonstration felt that making a statement on the floor would ensure the public knew about the atrocities in the redistricting process.
“We also know the people at home are really paying attention to what’s going on because they’re trying to control the narrative talking about Disney World,” McCurdy said.
Even as Speaker Chris Sprowls gaveled the House back into Session, Nixon and McCurdy continued to chant over a vote on the map. That continues as lawmakers took up two other bills to eliminate special rights for Disney, one related to the Reedy Creek Improvement District at the Walt Disney World property and one eliminating a carve-out for Disney+ in a social media bill passed two years ago.