Governor breaks silence on protests: ‘Florida has zero tolerance for violence’

State’s National Guard activated

A protester on a bicycle rides past a burning police car during a demonstration next to the city of Miami Police Department, Saturday, May 30, 2020, downtown in Miami. Protests were held throughout the country over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) (Wilfredo Lee, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – During a violent and chaotic weekend marked by demonstrations against police brutality, Floridians did not hear from Gov. Ron DeSantis.

DeSantis was quiet as thousands of protesters flooded city streets in various parts of the state, seething over the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, a black man killed in police custody under a white officer’s knee.

In Miami, squad cars were damaged and police fired tear gas at a crowd of protesters. In Tallahassee, the driver of a pickup truck plowed through a street packed with demonstrators, just blocks from the state Capitol building.

In Jacksonville, Sheriff Mike Williams said protesters “attacked several police officers,” including one who was hospitalized after being “slashed at the neck.” In Fort Lauderdale, a police officer was suspended after he was caught on video aggressively pushing a kneeling woman to the ground.

It wasn't until Monday afternoon that DeSantis’ office issued a statement, which only made mention of law enforcement efforts.

“Last weekend, he deployed special units of the Florida National Guard to Tampa and South Florida in support of local law enforcement efforts to do all that is necessary to ensure the peace and public safety in our communities,” Helen Aguirre Ferre, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in the statement.

Another longer statement was issued at about 5 p.m. Monday.

“Florida has zero tolerance for violence, rioting and looting. George Floyd’s murder was appalling, and the Minnesota perpetrators need to be brought to justice, but this cannot be used as a pretext for violence in our Florida communities," the statement read. “I am in constant contact with state and local leaders, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), the Florida National Guard and the Florida Highway Patrol (FHP). We have devoted significant resources, including the mobilization of 700 Florida National Guard soldiers who are specially trained to support law enforcement. I have also worked with FHP to coordinate more than 1,300 sworn Florida Highway Patrol troopers to support local law enforcement efforts. We will continue to do everything necessary to keep residents safe."

The message came a few hours after President Donald Trump urged state leaders to “dominate” and arrest disorderly protesters during a conference call, according to a recording made public by The Washington Post.

Orlando police officers deployed tear gas on Interstate 4 late Sunday after demonstrators blocked traffic in a protest over the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer was captured on video pressing his kneed on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

While Ferre confirmed DeSantis took part in the call, she declined to comment on the call’s contents.

But Trump was clear on his message to governors. He told them to use force against demonstrators and that people arrested at protests should serve between five and 10 years in prison, according to the recording.

"We have to get much tougher," Trump said. "If you don't dominate, you're wasting your time. They are going to run over you, and you're going to look like a bunch of jerks."

On the conference call, Trump also urged states to deploy the National Guard "in big numbers." DeSantis activated the guard on Saturday, according to Ferre.

“Currently, there are 150 guardsmen in Miramar; 150 in Camp Blanding & 100 arrived in Tampa. These especially trained units support law enforcement in many ways i.e. traffic & crowd control, all to preserve the peace & public safety,” Ferre tweeted Sunday afternoon.

As of Monday afternoon, the move to deploy the National Guard was the only announcement the state had made about its plans to respond to protests.

But the governor’s public schedule on Sunday suggested DeSantis talked with state police on how to respond.

For example, DeSantis met Sunday morning with Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen in the Capitol, according to the schedule. The details of what was discussed have not been disclosed.

The governor’s office and FDLE did not immediately respond to questions Monday from The News Service of Florida.

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Protesters start fires along the SoHo shopping district on Sunday, May 31, 2020, in New York. Protests were held throughout the city over the death of George Floyd, a black man in police custody in Minneapolis who died after being restrained by police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

Susan MacManus, a longtime political-science professor at the University of South Florida, said that historically in times of crisis “people want to see leaders in the community, the state and the nation come out and ease their concerns and reassure people.”

“The longer you wait to make a statement, the more people begin to question why,” she added.

DeSantis’ quiet response drew criticism from Democrats.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only Democrat elected statewide, said DeSantis' silence was "deafening."

“Unless I missed it --- Gov. Ron DeSantis has said NOTHING about protests against police brutality happening across the country & state this weekend. He activated Florida’s National Guard so is definitely aware, and yet NO statement,” Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, tweeted Sunday night.

Demonstrators marched, stopped traffic and in some cases lashed out violently at police as protests erupted Friday in dozens of U.S. cities following the killing of George Floyd after a white officer pressed a knee into his neck while taking him into custody in Minnesota.

Other Florida Republican leaders, meanwhile, have commented on the protests, looting and Floyd's death.

“The killing of George Floyd was heinous & jarring. Americans have the right to make their voices heard & protest peacefully. But violence against law enforcement & our communities are not the answer. We must come together as a state & a nation, not tear each other further apart,” U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, Florida’s former two-term governor, tweeted on Saturday.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., on Monday tweeted that he was concerned about anti-government “extremists who are online calling for attacks on police.”

“Sadly, instead of focusing on the core issues raised by his (Floyd’s) tragic death, the focus is on the violence & lawlessness at protests,” Rubio tweeted. “That must end.”

State Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills, made headlines for a tweet that featured a camouflage AR-15 and a warning to protesters in Lake County, part of which he represents in the House.

“Attention potential ‘protesters’ coming near Lake County, FL. This is an AR-15 --- this will be a very common sight upon illegal entry at any Lake County business --- FYI!” Sabatini tweeted on Sunday.

Rep. Cindy Polo, D-Miramar, filed a complaint Monday against Sabatini with House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, arguing the tweet violated the rules of the House for exhibiting “behavior that is contrary to good order and discipline.”

“Especially during times of crisis, people look to our elected officials for leadership and guidance. By intimating that protesters would be met with an AR-15, Rep. Sabatini is openly calling for violence,” Polo said in a statement.

Fried also wrote a letter to Oliva, asking that Sabatini be “admonished.”

“By encouraging armed violence against protesters, Representative Sabatini’s conduct fails to meet the basic standards of integrity, honor, confidence, and professionalism that the House’s rules require. Further, this perpetuates the Representative’s well-documented history of inflammatory actions and statements on racial issues that undermine the integrity of your chamber,” the letter read.

In a tweet, Sabatini called Fried’s letter “meaningless.”