Editorial Roundup: Florida

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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March 31

The Palm Beach Post on the “anti-riot” bill, which was recently passed by the state House:

It is most unfortunate that the Florida House has passed the “anti-riot” bill — proof that raising that old reliable battle cry, “law-and-order,” is more important to Florida’s leaders than seriously grappling with Floridians’ financial and employment troubles or still-present dangers from the virus that has so far cost more than 33,000 Florida lives.

It’s all the more unfortunate that the Republican-dominated House approved HB 1 (a title of honor that itself reveals perverse priorities) by a huge majority: 76-39 along party lines.

The bill is Gov. Ron DeSantis’ answer to the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the nation and the world last summer — 93% of which were entirely peaceful, according to a study last fall. The far fewer incidents of looting and vandalism looped endlessly in videos on the nation’s TV screens, giving a false impression of runaway violence and menace. In Florida, a violent demonstration was almost as rare as an actual incidence of voter fraud. Or civil disobedience from a “sanctuary city.”

There’s still time for sensible heads in the Senate to get a grip and kill this pernicious legislation before it becomes a law that further embarrasses the state.

Under the provisions of this bill, 97 people at a protest can be entirely law-abiding as they hold their signs, give speeches, chant their demands — the most American of rights, enshrined in the First Amendment. But if just three cross the line into criminal activity — smash a car window, throw something at a police officer — all the people there, all 100 of them, can be rounded up and charged with a felony. A “riot” is defined extremely broadly; it’s essentially any event in which three or more people engage in violence or destructive conduct.

This bill isn’t anti-riot. It’s anti-free speech.

What group will take the chance of demonstrating if the actions of a few hotheads — or worse, a few planted provocateurs — can make criminals of everybody there? The chill would freeze anyone with a cause: protests against gun restrictions or gun deaths, abortion rights or abortion limits, let alone racial injustice.

Given the history of police behavior in this country, we know what to expect. People of color, people of the left — they’ll be rounded up and charged far more often than those espousing causes dear to white conservatives.

As Rep. Tray McCurdy, D-Orlando, aptly stated during the nearly five-hour debate that preceded the House vote: “It seems that freedom of speech is free until Black and brown people start talking.”

The legislation toughens penalties for some crimes that already exist and creates new potential crimes including “mob intimidation,” “inciting a riot” and “defacing, damaging or destroying a monument,” a measure largely aimed at protecting Confederate statues still on pedestals across Florida. That’s right. Every Republican in the Florida House just voted for a new law to protect Confederate monuments.

We should all be troubled. As troubled as a former member of the Florida Supreme Court.

“This is an anti-protest bill,” says Justice Peggy Quince, “not a bill to enhance public safety.”

We should all be as troubled as some prosecutors.

“This is a politically motivated bill that nobody asked for,” Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg told the Post Editorial Board. “And it’s liable to be overturned in court because of its dubious constitutionality.”

“This bill doesn’t actually help prosecutors,” Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren said at a press conference last week. “We already have laws on the books for rioting, looting, destruction, violence... Rather than draw a clear distinction between peaceful protesting and criminal conduct it actually blurs the line between them.”

That’s fundamentally unfair.

And it’s unnecessary. Warren’s office is currently prosecuting 120 people for more than 260 separate charges of looting, burglary, theft and attacking police, most of the cases stemming from the one night, May 30, of widespread rioting in Tampa. All under existing laws, Warren said.

The Combating Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act’s offenses don’t end there. The bill would also take away localities’ control of their police budgets, allowing the governor and one Cabinet member to reject a city or county budget if it shifts any amount of money from the police.

Once again, as they have from plastic-bag bans to urban development to mask-wearing enforcement, the so-called party of “least government” would let Tallahassee officials, 400 miles away, call the shots on local budgets here in Palm Beach County. Their voters’ fear of “defunding the police” has clearly gotten the better of Republican lawmakers’ good sense.

The Senate has a history of being the cooler-headed chamber. This would be an excellent time for senators to say, “OK, fun’s up. Enough with the posturing.” And then kill this putrid bill.

Online: https://www.palmbeachpost.com/

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March 30

The Miami Herald on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ response to questions regarding unemployment:

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Monday news conference had all the elements of a Florida spectacle: a live rock band playing “With a Little Help from My Friends” (the dive bar cover of Joe Cocker’s version), a maskless group of people and a grouchy governor who doesn’t like tough questions intruding on his chosen narrative.

The event at the Capitol in Tallahassee was supposed to showcase DeSantis’ signing of a bill to protect businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits. The band was there, DeSantis said, to remind us of what we’re missing when businesses are afraid of the liability of hosting such events. What better way to demonstrate that than by gathering a handful of Republicans without masks and broadcasting it on social media? (Though most of them were lawmakers, who have to get tested periodically, it sends the wrong message).

But it was all just a sideshow, a distraction. COVID numbers are rising again in the nation’s third most populous state. Mentioning that would’ve struck a sour note indeed.

And so during the press conference, when Herald Tallahassee Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas asked the governor why he didn’t waive unemployment benefit requirements, as states like Texas did, during the pandemic, the governor dodged the question. That inaction resulted in pregnant women, people with COVID and people caring for children at home to be denied benefits, according to a story by the Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee Bureau that showed that the state’s strict anti-fraud measures prevented legitimate applicants from receiving payments.

“I don’t trust the premise of the question... I would like to see some validity to what they’re saying before I indulge the premise, because I don’t think that the premise is something I’m going to accept at face value,” DeSantis answered.

Is he challenging the premise that he didn’t waive the requirements or that deserving people were denied benefits? We don’t know because he ordered the press corps to move on to the next question.

Klas’ question was based on information from DeSantis’ own administration, including applicant rejection letters, training documents, interviews with call-center employees and lawmakers.

Pregnant women being denied benefits — and reporters doing their job — don’t mesh well with DeSantis’ self-congratulatory, “we-beat-COVID” tour of the past few weeks. When confronted with inconvenient information, DeSantis’ MO has been to question its accuracy or go on the attack. A few weeks ago, he threatened to take vaccines away from communities that have concerns about his vaccination pop-ups, some of which benefited rich, white communities.

But DeSantis’ temper tantrums matter less to us than getting an honest answer from the governor. He might have had legitimate reasons not to waive those requirements. Or he knows something the Herald’s reporting has yet to unveil.

Whatever that is, just answer the question, governor. It’s your job.

Online: https://www.miamiherald.com/

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March 26

The SunSentinel on Gov. Ron DeSantis' response to teaching students “critical race theory:"

Gov. Ron DeSantis went on a tear last week against allowing “critical race theory” in schools.

He called it “teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other.”

He’s wrong. What he makes sound terrible is simply an honest approach to American history.

As explained in an American Bar Association publication three months ago, critical race theory is not at all sinister. It looks at how racism “perpetuates a racial caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom caste,” and how its legacy affects Blacks, Asians and other minorities in America today.

In other words, it’s about the whole truth, including slavery, rather than some sanitized version. This is a truth that can set an entire nation free. But to overcome the past, we have to know how it led to the present.

Suppose the year is 1830 and your family’s prosperity depends on owning and exploiting other human beings as if they were plow mules. They have no rights even to their children, whose birth enhances your wealth.

How does a “good person” rationalize that even to oneself?

You say, as the slaveowners did, that God approved slavery and destined Blacks for inferiority. That they are fit for no better. That, as Thomas Jefferson explained to a visiting Englishman, they were “made to carry burthens.” In “Notes on the State of Virginia,” he wrote that his Black slaves were “inferior in the faculties of reason and imagination.” To free them would be like “abandoning children,” he wrote in a 1789 letter.

“The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially and physically,” Robert E. Lee wrote five years before choosing to fight for slavery.

“To be a slaveholder meant one had to believe that the worst white man was better than the best black man. If you did not believe these things, you could not justify yourself to yourself,” wrote the historian Stephen Ambrose in the November 2002 Smithsonian Magazine.

The racism of white supremacy was the pretext for the moral cancer of slavery and endures in America. Concocted out of ancient myths of Anglo-Saxon and Aryan superiority, racism was the foundation of a caste system and countless laws and regulations.

That caste system persists, as the news reminds us almost daily. Its pernicious legacy includes the indifference, even if unconscious, that condemns Blacks to lower life expectancies and higher mortality from COVID-19. It is a Black man dying with a white policeman’s knee on his neck. It is the racial segregation of neighborhoods and schools owing to redlining practiced by banks and government agencies. It is the cycles of poverty begun when Southern politicians swindled Black farmers out of their land with confiscatory taxes, when white trade unions denied membership to Black workers, and when the original Social Security law excluded farm and domestic labor.

It is the criminalization of race with mandatory minimum sentences, draconian drug laws and unchecked prosecutorial discretion. It is Republican legislators in 45 states designing voter suppression bills with “almost surgical precision” against Black voters, as a court described one of North Carolina’s.

It is the history of Jim Crow and second-class citizenship that persisted for a century after the South lost the Civil War but won the peace, and in more than 4,000 lynchings, mostly of Blacks.

It is the forgotten history of white riots such as the ones that obliterated the Florida settlement of Rosewood, left as many as 60 dead in the Orange County town of Ocoee and destroyed 35 square blocks of Tulsa, Oklahoma, 100 years ago, leaving hundreds dead.

It is always bad news when a politician undertakes to politicize the curriculum, as by a current attempt in the Florida Legislature to revive the “Americanism vs. Communism” course requirement that made our state an academic laughingstock until it was shelved some years ago.

As is his custom, DeSantis is echoing the culture war tropes of his mentor Donald Trump, whose “1776 Report” was a clumsy attempt at rewriting history to counter the Black Lives Matter movement and steer American schools away from referencing the New York Times’ “1619 Project.”

The newspaper’s project was a comprehensive account of the origins and effects of racism in America. The title refers to the arrival of the first African slaves at Jamestown, 12 years after the political history of our nation began with the English settlement there. Legal slavery persisted for 246 years, longer than the nation has been without it.

Nine presidents owned slaves; only George Washington freed his. Slave labor went into the Capitol and the White House. The principal author of the Declaration of Independence did not really believe that all men are created equal. But if taught in proper context, those facts can help school children learn how even great people can do bad things and should be judged by the totality of their lives.

As Ambrose wrote, “Few of us escape our times and places.”

How can we properly honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., without fully understanding what he gave his life to fight? How can we appreciate the right to vote without knowing why John Lewis suffered a skull fracture at Selma? How can we make the cases for criminal justice reform and better policing without realizing that the needs were evident long, long before George Floyd died in Minneapolis? We can’t break the cycles of poverty without knowing what created and sustains them.

Knowing history does not mean erasing it, like the San Francisco Board of Education did in voting to strike famous names, including Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, from 44 of its schools. That is as extreme as anything Trump and DeSantis have advocated. The board blames Lincoln for allowing 38 Native Americans to be hanged for attacking whites, never mind that he spared more than 200 on account of weak evidence. He also saved the Union and destroyed slavery. More than any other man of his time, Washington built the nation and pioneered a responsible presidency. Feinstein’s “crime” is as trivial as allowing a vandalized Confederate flag to be replaced while she was mayor long ago.

Monuments to people who built and saved our nation deserve to endure, unlike those of Confederates who tried to destroy it. That is a critical difference.

That is why American history, properly and fully taught, is a service to the nation and is patriotism in the fullest sense.

Online: https://www.sun-sentinel.com/