Florida Democratic Party chair Nikki Fried and Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book were among those taken into police custody Monday night as they protested the state's proposed 6-week abortion ban outside Tallahassee City Hall.
Fried and Book were among a group sitting on the sidewalk in front of the building and singing as police officers came out to warn them they'd be subject to arrest for trespassing if they did not leave. Court dockets as of early Monday showed both charged with trespass on property after warning, a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
A sign was placed outside City Hall last week declaring it a "park," with rules that include "no sleeping/camping" and "no overnight parking" but did not mention gatherings. According to the City of Tallahassee’s online parks guide, however, the area in front of City Hall is not considered a park.
City officials told the Tallahassee Democrat Monday night that organizers said some of the protesters wanted to sleep outside overnight, raising liability concerns. Commenters quickly noted on social media that homeless individuals regularly sleep in city parks, such as the downtown Chain of Parks.
Monday morning, Florida National Organization of Women spokesperson Kat Duesterhaus told City & State abortion ban opponents were planning to gather there despite their request to assemble outside City Hall being rejected. The GOP-controlled Florida Senate passed the ban (SB 300) Monday on a 26-13 vote. It goes next to the House, where it is also expected to pass and then be sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has said he would sign it.
During the day, Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, had ordered the public galleries of the chamber cleared after continued outbursts from people opposed to the ban.
Duesterhaus had said opponents were aware they could be arrested but said they "hope it doesn't come to that," and added that they would leave it to individuals whether to leave if asked or stay.
She also said the city had at first given permission for a "grassroots coalition calling themselves #OccupyTally" to use Kleman Plaza, which is a park, during the day. "However, by noon on March 31st the City revoked the coalition’s permit. The City offered City Hall instead ... Around 4 p.m. the City pivoted once again, saying even City Hall was now off limits," Duesterhaus said in a Friday press release.
According to videos from the scene posted on social media, Book – who had voted against the ban – and Fried were handcuffed and seemingly taken into custody. People could be heard shouting "shame, shame" as they were led away.
In a statement to news media Monday night, Tallahassee police said the city "had been working with protest organizers for over a week; however, due to the size of the crowd they were expecting and their desire for overnight camping, they were informed last Friday of the City’s inability to accommodate them.
"Upon the group’s arrival to City Hall today, they were allowed to utilize the property during normal operating hours. After multiple warnings throughout the day, protesters acknowledged they understood that anyone refusing to leave the premises at sundown would be subject to arrest. This evening, after sunset, the majority of the crowd left the property while 11 people refused to leave despite numerous requests. They were subsequently arrested for trespass after warning.
"TPD encourages individuals exercising their First Amendment right of peaceful assembly to do so in accordance with the law. TPD supports non-disruptive demonstrations and works diligently to protect and uphold the rights of citizens every day."
Book and Fried had not been booked by 9:30 p.m. Monday, according to the Leon County Sheriff's Office website. They and the others were expected to be released after being given notices to appear in court on misdemeanor trespassing charges.
Tallahassee City Commissioner Jack Porter released her own statement, saying "what happened tonight raises serious questions about the judgment of this City administration. Free speech and the right to peaceably assemble are fundamental American freedoms. I cannot speak for the conscience of this Commission majority, but I certainly do not support arresting protesters for exercising their constitutional rights in opposing extreme anti-choice legislation."