TALLAHASSEE — Ben Frazier, a Jacksonville community activist, was arrested and escorted away from a government building where Gov. Ron DeSantis was set to host a news conference on Tuesday.
The confrontation started when DeSantis aides asked those present for the news conference at the Florida Department of Health building in Duval County to show media credentials. The event was open only to credentialed journalists, they said.
Frazier, 71, and a small group of citizens did not have credentials, but refused to leave the room. The disagreement between DeSantis staffers — who kept asking Frazier and his group to leave — and the activists was broadcast on The Florida Channel.
“This is a public building, and we don’t intend on moving,” Frazier told the aides at one point. The governor was not in the room at the time.
Frazier is the president of the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, which says its mission is to “stand against racial, economic and social injustice.”
He told DeSantis aides he wanted to meet with the governor.
As they argued with the governor’s aides, the activists took issue with DeSantis’ response to the coronavirus pandemic, the anti-rioting legislation he pushed during the 2021 legislative session, and his rhetoric about critical race theory.
After several minutes, Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office deputies put handcuffs on Frazier and led him out of the building. While they did so, Frazier asked the officers why he was the only person being handcuffed.
Frazier faces a trespassing charge, a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail, according to a citation document obtained from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.
When asked about the confrontation with Frazier, a DeSantis spokesperson said the activist was interfering with the governor’s ability to get important information to the public.
“Mr. Frazier is an activist, not a member of the press. Every citizen has the right to protest in public places — but not to trespass in a secured facility in order to disrupt a press briefing and prevent information from being conveyed to the public,” the spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, wrote in an emailed statement Tuesday.
In an interview, Frazier said his group did not come to the press conference to stage a protest. They wanted to ask the governor about his pandemic and criminal justice policies.
“Had the governor chosen to deescalate the situation, he could have taken a few questions from the public, answered them and been on his way,” Frazier said.
But once they were asked to leave, the situation turned into an opportunity for civil disobedience, Frazier said.
When asked about the confrontation at the news conference, DeSantis said, “I have no idea what happened.”
He and other top health officials were in Jacksonville to discuss monoclonal antibody treatments and testing strategies for COVID-19. At the event, officials blamed the Biden administration for not releasing enough of the treatments to Florida during this latest surge of the virus. The DeSantis administration has been sparring with the federal government over access to monoclonal antibody treatments — many of which appear to be ineffective against the omicron variant of the virus — for days.
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The governor was joined by Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo, Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Simone Marstiller and Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie.
Rep. Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee, who will be the next Democratic leader in the Florida House, blasted DeSantis’ team for ejecting Frazier from the news conference.
“The hypocrisy of Governor DeSantis’ ‘Free State of Florida’ was on full display today in Jacksonville. It’s only free if you agree with him, and you can only attend his events if you are a cheerleader for his political ambitions,” Alexander said in a statement.