ST. PETERSBURG — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday stood just a short walk away from where a viral dust-up between demonstrators and diners on Beach Drive NE happened and said his proposed legislation to harshly punish those who take part in violent protests would have dealt with the situation.
“What we saw here in St. Petersburg the other night with mobs harassing innocent people who were enjoying a meal at a restaurant is simply unacceptable,” DeSantis said at a news conference held at the Birchwood.
Nearby was Parkshore Grill, the scene of Wednesday night’s disagreement between two patrons and protesters that resulted in harsh words and hand gestures. A Tampa Bay Times reporter recorded part of the exchange on video, which has 3.1 million views on Twitter.
“If you go out here in the state of Florida and you’re sitting in a restaurant you should be able to do that in peace without having some lunatic come up and yell in your face,” DeSantis said. "I think that should be dealt with anyways, but our legislation will certainly do that.
“It’s simply unacceptable to allow that type of behavior here in the state of Florida. For those law-abiding men and women, we got your back and more help is on the way.”
Protesters outside the Birchwood chanted “No justice, no peace” as the governor spoke.
DeSantis’ comments drew pushback from the office of St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.
“It’s campaign season,” said spokesman Ben Kirby. "The governor has to fan the flames and fire up his base in an effort to re-elect Donald Trump. Nobody expects anything different.”
Earlier this week, the governor proposed tougher punishments for those who throw objects, assault officers and felony charges for those involved in protests that block traffic or damage property.
The proposal would cut off state funds from any municipality that “defunds the police” and absolve drivers who hit protesters if they do so while “fleeing for safety from a mob.”
A group of 50 or so mostly white protesters marched through downtown St. Petersburg on Wednesday night hours after a grand jury decided not to charge any police officers in the death of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman killed by police during a March 13 raid in Louisville, Ky. The city has fired one officer, paid her family a $12 million settlement and promised police reforms.
There were other tense moments between protesters and others that night, and the group did temporarily block traffic.
Police Chief Anthony Holloway declined to comment on the governor’s remarks and legislation, a police spokeswoman told the Times on Friday, because the “Combating Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act” are currently “bullet points,” not actual legislation.
Kirby said St. Petersburg’s mayor has other priorities: “Mayor Kriseman is focused on COVID, keeping residents safe, ensuring people can safely exercise their Constitutional rights, and ensuring St. Pete remains on the right track.”
Times staff writer Josh Solomon contributed to this report.
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Coverage of local and national protests from the Tampa Bay Times
WHAT PROTESTERS WANT: Protesters explain what changes would make them feel like the movement is successful.
WHAT ARE NON-LETHAL AND LESS-LETHAL WEAPONS? A guide to what’s used in local and national protests.
WHAT ARE ARRESTED PROTESTERS CHARGED WITH? About half the charges filed have included unlawful assembly.
CAN YOU BE FIRED FOR PROTESTING? In Florida, you can. Learn more.
HEADING TO A PROTEST? How to protect eyes from teargas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.