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Activist Ben Frazier arrested after disruption at DeSantis press conference

Jacksonville activist Ben Frazier was arrested on a trespassing charge Tuesday after disrupting a press conference planned by Gov. Ron DeSantis — an event that devolved into bedlam and touched off a wide-ranging debate about free speech.

Frazier, founder of the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, was one of a dozen protesters involved in the turmoil, but he was the only person arrested and removed from the the Duval County Health Department, the site of the press conference.

Florida Rising, the Jacksonville Community Action Committee and TakeEmDownJax were among the groups that had entered the conference room, hoping to confront DeSantis about his response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shortly after the incident, DeSantis' spokeswoman Christina Pushaw told WJCT News that the event was reserved for the news media, not the public. Frazier "is an activist, not a member of the press," she said.

"Every citizen has the right to protest in public places, but not to trespass in a secure facility in order to disrupt a press briefing," she said.

But DeSantis' critics quickly assailed the arrest as an overreaction and a restraint on free speech.

"In Florida, the governor runs and hides when the people demand to be a priority. In Florida, peacefully questioning authority gets you arrested," Democratic Rep. Angie Nixon of Jacksonville said in a news release. "The treatment of Mr. Ben Frazier, a disabled civil rights activist and member of my community, was shameful and appalling."

Frazier, 71, uses a physical aid to get around, but he was forced to stand with the support of two officers while they removed him.

He and other protestors wanted to confront DeSantis about his response to the COVID-19 pandemic and ask questions about recent testing shortages that have plagued the First Coast.

"It's inconvenient that they had a couple of extra voices today. It's inconvenient for the governor," Christina Kittle, one of the protesters with Florida Rising, said. "But COVID has been very inconvenient for the public for all of us. That's the reason why people were there and trying to get answers directly from the governor himself."

After the incident, the governor's staff moved the press conference from the Health Department to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement office nearby, where DeSantis spoke an hour after his originally scheduled appearance.

Frazier recorded his encounter with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and confirmed he was being charged with trespass after warning, a misdemeanor offense. He was released after receiving a citation to appear in court.

Frazier Charges

Frazier was one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against DeSantis after the governor signed an "anti-riot" law last year giving law enforcement more authority to detain protestors as well as creating steeper penalties for participants in demonstrations where violence occurred, including felonies for organizers.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is running in the Democratic primary to replace DeSantis as governor this year, issued a statement connecting Frazier's arrest with the law, also referred to as House Bill 1.

“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," Fried said.

"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.”

A federal judge struck down part of the law in September.

Reporter Raymon Troncoso joined WJCT News in June of 2021 after concluding his fellowship with Report For America, where he was embedded with Capitol News Illinois covering Illinois state government with a focus on policy and equity. You can reach him at (904) 358-6319 or Rtroncoso@wjct.org and follow him on Twitter @RayTroncoso.
Claire joined WJCT as a reporter in August 2021. She was previously the local host of NPR's Morning Edition at WUOT in Knoxville, Tennessee. During her time in East Tennessee, her coverage of the COVID pandemic earned a Public Media Journalists’ Association award for investigative reporting. You can reach Claire at (904) 250-0926 or on Twitter @ClaireHeddles.