JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A community activist adamant about speaking to Gov. Ron DeSantis at a news conference in Jacksonville on Tuesday ended up in a heated exchange with some of the governor’s staffers and was eventually arrested on a trespassing charge and led from the room in handcuffs.
Ben Frazier of the Northside Coalition has always been vocal and has made it his mission to carry out protests on issues he deems vital to the community. On Tuesday, he stood in the room inside the state offices where the governor was slated to speak with health officials and flatly refused to budge when they asked him to leave. He said he had a right to be in the public space.
“We’re not moving. Go and get the governor,” Frazier said defiantly to one of the staffers
[WATCH: Press play above to watch the entire exchange with Frazier and his arrest]
The facilities manager then came in asking to see everyone’s press credentials -- as a uniformed officer stood in the middle of the room. The facilities manager said that while the building is a state building, they conduct private business in some areas and asked everyone who was not with the media to leave the room or risk being trespassed from the property.
This sparked a vocal response from Frazier and other activists, who declined to leave.
“There’s nothing private about public health,” Frazier said.
Another staffer then came out offering a business card for the governor’s communications office so she could “get something arranged” and “make sure that it’s constructive.”
“We appreciate that,” Frazier said, “but this is a public building, and we don’t intend on moving.”
The tense exchange continued and eventually ended with Frazier in handcuffs being led from the building and placed in a marked police car.
“Why am I being handcuffed? Am I being arrested?” Frazier asked as he was led from the room.
As he was placed in the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office vehicle, others chanted “Shame. Shame.” at his arrest.
Frazier later shared with News4JAX that he was arrested on a misdemeanor trespassing charge but released on his own recognizance and given a notice to appear in court.
He captured video on his cellphone of the arresting officer explaining the charge.
If the charges are not dropped, Frazier could face a fine and court costs and possible community service.
“I think it’s another stunning example of the governor’s attempt to stop Black organizers from protesting peaceably,” Frazier said after he was released. “First Amendment rights and public expression is critical to a functioning democracy. This is what this is all about. The governor should not attempt to stop the people from being heard.”
Frazier has been removed from City Hall before for protests during meetings but has not previously been arrested in those incidents. He admitted he went into the news conference Tuesday willing to be arrested if it came down to it.
“We’re protesting the fact that this governor has been an enemy of the people. It’s about time that we call it just like it is. This governor has attempted to stop us from exercising our First Amendment rights, which are the most basic and fundamental rights of the American democracy,” Frazier said. “This governor has been asleep at the wheel during the pandemic and in recent weeks he has been, in fact, missing in action as it relates to what to do about the pandemic.”
Governor’s office, state leaders respond
State leaders said that while the facility is public, the press conference was closed, but attorneys and others News4JAX checked with Tuesday said that’s debatable and the public should be allowed to attend the governor’s news conferences. They added that the demeanor of someone interrupting the event could be a reason for their arrest.
DeSantis’ press secretary Christina Pushaw released a statement about the incident:
“The press conference is for credentialed media to cover information from the governor’s office and state leaders that is important for the public to hear. 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 state Republican party criticized Frazier and his actions:
“Democrat activist Ben Frazier attempted to disrupt Governor DeSantis’ press conference related to the distribution of COVID life-saving treatments for Duval County. It is on record, that he was politely asked to leave and refused multiple times upon which he was escorted out by law enforcement. This is not the first time Mr. Frazier encounters the law. Governor DeSantis is fighting to increase the supply of COVID treatments that the federal government is denying Florida residents. Democrats must not stand in the way of people getting the COVID treatments and information they deserve.”
Local Democrats and the party, on the other hand, criticized the governor. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat running against DeSantis for governor, also weighed in:
“The extremely disturbing events we saw take place today, arresting an individual for simply asking to speak with the Governor at a press conference held on government property discussing public health policy, were a realization of our fears surrounding HB1′s enactment. HB1 set a dangerous precedent, disallowing individuals from speaking their minds and peacefully gathering – freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. I hope that any charges brought against Mr. Frazier, a respected civil rights activist in the community, are swiftly dropped and apologies issued for infringing on his rights. The Governor should be ashamed.”
Frazier not alone in dissent
Frazier was the only one arrested at Tuesday’s news conference but he was not the only frustrated community member voicing angry opinions over DeSantis’ handling of the pandemic -- and other issues.
At one point before Frazier was handcuffed, aides removed the podium and other display items for the news conference, sparking a chant from those in the room: “When it comes to public welfare, this governor does not care.” Frazier repeated the chant as he was placed in handcuffs.
“If this is what we have to do, which is go to jail in order to have a word with the governor, the mayor, or whoever else so be it,” said Nubian Roberts, a member of the Black Coalition and Florida Rising.
To be clear, Frazier was not booked into the jail but was released on his own recognizance with a notice to appear.
“Nothing can be off-script. I kind of expected them to come in at some point. I wasn’t there to make a disruption. I was sitting there quietly at the back of the room with my mask on,” said Maria Garcia, who was among those in the room Tuesday. “It was really disappointing that they have to turn it into a show of force that anyone who goes against the governor is going to be trespassed.”
DeSantis ended up holding the news conference with state health officials elsewhere in the building after the activists had been removed. He declined to address what happened, focusing instead on new possible COVID testing guidelines for Florida.
The governor also said the state is prepared to open state-run monoclonal antibody treatment sites, including one in Jacksonville, within 24 to 48 hours after the state receives the doses of the treatment.
Garcia was among those who said they were at the news conference Tuesday to voice their concerns and just wanted to hear what DeSantis had to say and possibly ask him some questions.
“Try to ask him what he plans to do to protect citizens from COVID. What he plans to do about the response that has been completely abysmal so far,” Garcia said. “We’re not here for fun. We’re here because people are dying.”