Florida House Black Caucus members took direct action on the House floor during last week's special session

‘Done being ignored’

Reps. Travaris McCurdy and Angela Nixon literally on the House floor
Reps. Travaris McCurdy and Angela Nixon literally on the House floor photo via office of Rep. Travaris McCurdy

In an extraordinary display this week in the state House chamber, Black Democrats loudly chanted, wore T-shirts that read "Stop the Black Attack," and staged a sit-in protest that shut down debate over African American representation in the redistricting process.

"When Black votes are under attack, we stand up and fight back," the crowd of Black lawmakers yelled on the House floor.

For years now, that's not always been the case in the GOP-controlled Legislature, where Black lawmakers and Democrats often get rolled over as Republican legislators approve their conservative agendas.

But this week, Black lawmakers demanded to be heard. They'd had enough. They're now on the offensive. And they're going to stay there.

A passionate group of Black Caucus members took action on the House floor Thursday, alarmed about a congressional map that cuts Black seats to only two in Gov. Ron DeSantis' congressional redistricting plan.

"Hello, Black Floridians at home today that's watching this: The Florida House is about to cut your representation by 50 percent before lunch time," state Rep. Travaris McCurdy, who represents part of Orange County, said during Thursday's House session.

"We shouldn't be here begging for representation in 2022," he said. "I've had enough of being kicked around in this building, in this chamber and still being expected to smile and shake your hands and engage in conversation with the same people who are trying to oppress my people," McCurdy said.

The protest had been previously planned by McCurdy and state Rep. Angela Nixon, McCurdy told the Florida Phoenix during an interview in the state Capitol. That came after the Florida Senate had cleared DeSantis' congressional map and two bills that strip Disney from self-government powers and an exemption from last year's law cracking down on social media.

Just Wednesday, state Sen. Bobby Powell had delivered emotional remarks in the Senate, expressing how he felt as a Black man and lawmaker in a Republican-led state Legislature that has oftentimes pushed initiatives through the legislative process that could threaten minority populations.

Powell, of Palm Beach County and a leader of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, told his colleagues, "I wake up, knowing in this process, that we have to continue to fight. And sometimes you get tired, right?

"Tired of the book bans, tired of the 'Don't Say Gay,' tired of the maps being changed, tired of the CRT [Critical Race Theory] ... tired of wondering when I wake up in the morning, am I Black today, am I colored, am I a Negro?

"What is my battle today?"

Those words seemed to be foreshadowing what would come on Thursday in the state House. (Powell told the Phoenix he was not aware of a House protest prior to Thursday.)

"Myself and Rep. Nixon, we kind of strategized together," McCurdy told the Phoenix in the Capitol. "We knew that the Senate went home yesterday and it was up to us. This was the final shot."

McCurdy continued: "We knew we had a certain time allotted for us to debate on before the clock ran out. So we wanted to make sure our members got on record but we also knew that we're going to disrupt this process that's been disrupting so many lives across the state," said, McCurdy, who was wearing one of the T-shirts while sitting in protest on the floor of the House.

The spark of a protest started when Black lawmaker Yvonne Hinson was speaking.

She had recalled her experience as a young Black activist who joined the fight for Black voting rights.

"I've been kicked, I've been talked about, and I have been called names that you don't even put in the dictionary anymore," said Hinson, a Democrat representing parts of Alachua and Marion counties.

She wanted to keep talking but her time was cut off under the House debate rules. That's when Nixon, of Duval County, and McCurdy stormed to the well of the chamber, and the proceedings were halted.

"The demonstration was really for the people at home," McCurdy told the Phoenix. "We have an election coming up in November and if this guy [DeSantis] gets re-elected, he's already showing up now in his first term the type of dictatorship, the type of bullying that he's seeking to do, and it's intentional."

State Rep. Patricia Williams, of Broward County, told the Phoenix that members of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus were infuriated by Republicans attacking Black representation in the state, with the congressional map.

"When Black voters are under attack, what do we do stand up and fight back," she said.

During a conversation in the state Capitol, state Rep. Michele Rayner told the Phoenix that "we sang, we sat on the floor, and the Republicans vacated the room." A Democrat, she represents parts of Hillsborough, Manatee, Pinellas and Sarasota counties.

When GOP lawmakers came back to the chamber, House Speaker Chris Sprowls appeared partly angry and partly astonished. Black lawmakers refused to stop loudly chanting and disrupting Sprowls, who continued to push through the congressional map legislation and the other two Disney-related bills.

Republicans in the chamber applauded when they voted to say yes to those bills, though some Democrats booed.

"They were clapping as democracy was dying," said Rayner.

After the House session ended, Black lawmakers held a news conference to discuss what happened and what comes next.

State Rep. Ramon Alexander, representing Gadsden County and parts of Leon in the state capital, said, "We're going to be revved up ... and we're going on offense and we're going to stop playing on defense."

This story was originally published at the Florida Phoenix.

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