As they were finishing up, a pickup truck with a Confederate flag pressed into the crowd. Demonstrators surrounded the driver and began shouting political slogans and expletives.
Then someone yanked the flag off the truck and threw it on the ground. Others stomped on it and attempted to set it on fire. Police moved in, and Brooks, who is Black, was arrested and charged with inciting a riot and resisting a police officer.
Authorities later dropped the rioting charge against Brooks. But his case exemplifies the legal peril that Florida residents could soon face under sweeping anti-protest legislation championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), which would make it easier for someone to be sent to prison for participating in a protest that becomes unruly.
The measure was approved last month by the state House of Representatives; a Senate committee is debating the bill Friday.
Under the proposal, a person who attends a protest that becomes violent can be charged with a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. The crime rises to a second-degree felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison, if 25 or more people are present at a disruptive event.
The bill would also create stiff penalties for defacing or destroying a historical monument or flag, in effect providing protection to the symbols of Florida’s Confederate heritage, experts say.
Brooks and other Black Floridians say the legislation would silence their opposition to Confederate symbols while handing police even more power.
“Freedom of speech and freedom to protest is what America was founded on,” said Brooks, who works in a Plant City seafood processing plant. “I should have a right to speak out about an era that subjugated me.”
According to a database maintained by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, state lawmakers have introduced 92 anti-protest bills since Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer last May.
Many of the bills include proposals that would make it a felony to block traffic, loosen the definitions of what constitutes a riot, and bolster civil immunity and stand-your-ground firearms laws when deadly force is used against rioters.
“I call them kitchen-sink-type bills because they are throwing the kitchen sink at protesters, and many are written with vague language so police and prosecutors can use the language in targeted ways,” said Elly Page, a senior legal adviser to ICNL.
The language in many of the bills is nearly identical, Page said, though ICNL has not determined whether the text is coming from a central group or whether lawmakers are copying each other.
Republicans have defended the laws as a necessary protection against violent agitators, and say they don’t target specific activists.
“We do not need to have Miami or Orlando or Jacksonville become Kenosha [Wis.] or Seattle or Portland,” Fla. Rep. Cord Byrd (R) said at a recent floor debate on the bill, referring to cities that saw violent Black Lives Matter protests last summer. “We have the ability to act now to say: You can peacefully assemble in Florida . . . But you cannot harm other people. You cannot destroy their property. You cannot destroy their lives.”
The bill’s Democratic opponents, meanwhile, invoked the nation’s storied history of political dissent.
“This bill muddies the waters in a very real way that will allow peaceful protesters to get swept up in arrests,” Florida Rep. Ben Diamond (D) said at the debate.
Brooks says his own life in Plant City highlights why so many Black Florida residents are concerned about House Bill 1.
Located 25 miles east of Tampa, Plant City was developed around a South Florida Railroad stop in the 1800s. It bills itself as the “winter strawberry capital of the world.”
Like many areas of the South, Plant City was once mostly segregated. Well into the 20th Century, the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups held considerable sway there.
In recent decades, as the outer suburbs of Tampa and Orlando began to stretch into town, race relations have improved. But Black Plant City residents, who make up about 14 percent of the population, say they still face discrimination. Black residents, for example, have long questioned why a Black female contestant has never been named “Strawberry Queen” at the annual Strawberry Festival.
“There have been a lot of changes here, but there is still a lot of hidden racism and implicit bias,” said Kenny Griffin, 39, a Black community leader who grew up in Plant City. He said it was still common in the 1990s for his White high school classmates to threaten to “burn a cross” in his yard.
“So when we saw what happened to George Floyd, we decided to march here, too,” he said.
Brooks saw the June 2 march as an opportunity to stand up against the injustice he believes he faced as a teenager.
In 2007, when Brooks was 17, police and prosecutors arrested Brooks and accused him of violating Florida’s “RICO Act,” designed to combat organized crime. Brooks said he and about a dozen friends were charged with racketeering, which carried a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
At the time, Brooks was part of a loose-knit group of Black youths that called themselves the “Black Mob.” Brooks said he and his friends committed some crimes, including car thefts and burglaries.
But he denies that his friends were operating as a gang or organized crime ring, and said that his lawyer at the time — a public defender — encouraged him to plead guilty “for something I was really innocent of.”
“We were just kids who grew up together, and were not shooting people or killing people, but the Plant City police department decided to round us all up,” Brooks said. Racketeering “is a charge you give the Mafia or the Mob, not 16- or 17-year-old kids.”
Both the Plant City Police and the Hillsborough County state’s attorney’s office declined to comment on those cases.
A law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter, said at the time police and prosecutors in Florida were using the RICO statue to break up gangs accused of committing serious crimes that crossed jurisdictional boundaries.
After he pleaded guilty to armed robbery and racketeering, Brooks was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He started reading books – sometimes more than a book a day – about Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and other civil rights leaders.
“When you read their stories, you understand they came from a similar background as me, and I finally found someone I can relate to,” Brooks said.
Brooks was released from prison in 2016 after serving 8 1/2 years of his sentence. After being rejected for most jobs because of his felony record, Brooks found a job stacking pallets of fish and shrimp at a seafood processing plant. He was eventually promoted to plant production manager.
As he marched around Plant City during the demonstration, Brooks said he thought of childhood friends who remain in prison on 20-year sentences for violating Florida’s RICO Act.
“We marched because we are facing injustices. Maybe things have died down from Jim Crow and hanging people on trees, but [racism] still affects us,” Brooks said.
Hasani Jackson, a Black Plant City resident and middle-school teacher, described the protest as “full of young people, of all different cultures.”
“Nothing like that ever happens here,” Jackson, 43, said. “I’ve never seen so many people in Plant City come out without fear.”
But as the protest was winding down, a truck started following the demonstrators, who were marching on the highway with a police escort following behind.
As the truck moved into the crowd, someone ripped off the Confederate flag, and demonstrators began stomping on it and “attempted to set it on fire,” Jackson said.
Lt. Alfred Van Duyne, a spokesman for the Plant City Police Department, said officers had identified Brooks as the suspect who grabbed the flag, sparking a confrontation.
Brooks’s attorney, Erin Hardister, noted that the Hillsborough County state’s attorney dropped the charge of inciting a riot, citing a lack of evidence against him. But Hardister said the incident — including the officers’ failure to also arrest the truck driver — demonstrates how “dangerous and unnecessary” House Bill 1 is and how easily it can be inequitably enforced.
(The driver of the truck was not arrested because he fled the scene, Van Duyne said.)
The bill states a person could be sentenced to five years in prison for causing at least $200 damage to a memorial — which includes a flag — or historic property, and up to 15 years in prison if they destroy them.
Kara Gross, legislative director for the ACLU of Florida, said the anti-rioting provisions of the bill also mean someone like Brooks could find it far harder in the future to get a prosecutor to drop rioting charges because they will no longer have to prove someone “engaged in violent behavior.”
“You just have to be present at a protest that turns violent,” Gross said.
So, at least for now, Brooks said there will be one less person there the next time residents in Plant City decide to hold a racial justice protest. Brooks will be at home.
“I don’t want to jeopardize everything,” he said. “I’ve worked too hard to put it all on the line.”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.