Raw anger greeted Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis this week at a Jacksonville vigil for the victims of a White gunman who authorities said hated Black people and killed three on Saturday.
“You’re not welcome here!” one man shouted as the governor stepped up to the mic amid a mostly Black crowd. “Your policies caused this,” another yelled during a chorus of boos that stretched more than 40 seconds.
It was a visceral expression of many Black Floridians’ anger at DeSantis — which erupted anew as the Republican presidential candidate responded to racist violence in his home state. Black politicians and organizers called DeSantis’s condemnations of the deadly shooting “hollow” or “hypocritical” from a governor they say has set back the rights of Black people and minimized the threat posed by racism.
DeSantis quickly denounced the shooter’s motives, acknowledging that law enforcement found he was “targeting people based on their race” and calling that “totally unacceptable.” Allies and some Democrats praised him for showing up to a community event where he was likely to face a hostile crowd.
Still, the strained moment in Jacksonville cast a spotlight on some of the broader tensions over his candidacy and the pitch he is making to voters across the country. As governor and now a contender for president, DeSantis typically talks about racism as an issue distorted by Democrats, and he has frequently clashed with Black lawmakers and civil rights leaders over his polarizing policies and rhetoric.
Even in a party largely united behind declarations that America is not a racist country, DeSantis stands out for his aggressive targeting of what he has disparagingly called “woke” liberal concepts about race: His administration has barred certain classroom lessons on race, blocked an Advanced Placement African American studies course and defunded “diversity, equity and inclusion” programs at state colleges, a move he touts on the campaign trail.
Black lawmakers in Florida — who are mostly Democrats — have also extensively protested DeSantis policies beyond education, blasting Florida’s new election police force, an “anti-riot bill” and a redistricting plan that eliminated two congressional districts drawn to help Black Floridians elect their favored candidate. One of them included Jacksonville.
The legislation DeSantis championed “is harmful to Black and brown people — we’ve been yelling it for years,” said Florida state Sen. Tracie Davis, a Democrat who represents Jacksonville and attended the vigil on Sunday night. She said she walked away as DeSantis spoke and believes he is part of the problem because of his policies and rhetoric.
DeSantis campaign press secretary Bryan Griffin said in a statement that DeSantis “has condemned these racially motivated murders repeatedly in the strongest possible language” and “will not tolerate racial hatred or violence in Florida.” He added, “We reject attempts by the media to politicize this horrible event by collecting and amplifying false talking points from political opponents.”
Some Black leaders also defended DeSantis. Florida Rep. Kiyan Michael, a Black Republican who represents part of the county surrounding Jacksonville, said the governor’s record has been misconstrued and praised his education agenda.
Quisha King — a Jacksonville activist who shares DeSantis’s opposition to “critical race theory,” which emphasizes systemic aspects of racism — said DeSantis gave her “a big hug” at Sunday’s vigil and “handled it like a true leader would.”
“I don’t think anything he said would have satisfied them,” she said of DeSantis’s critics.
The booing also drew a rebuke from Jacksonville city council member Ju’Coby Pittman, a Democrat who took the mic to quiet the crowd for DeSantis and urge everyone to “put parties aside.”
“I’m glad he was here because he could see people up close and personal … I’m sure a lot of people, when they stepped up there, they didn’t expect the governor to be here. I know I didn’t,” Pittman said later in an interview.
DeSantis won reelection by a wide margin in 2022. But Black voters voted overwhelmingly for his Democratic opponent, exit poll data show.
Diallo-Sekou Seabrooks, president of The Black Commission, also disagreed with the booing and said that as leader of the state, DeSantis “needed to be here.” But Seabrooks, whose group advocates for policies in the Black community’s interest, said that some of the governor’s policies “come off racist.”
DeSantis spoke for about a minute-and-a-half after Pittman intervened, calling the shooter — identified by law enforcement as 21-year-old Ryan Christopher Palmeter — a “major league scumbag.” Palmeter was refused entry Saturday at Edward Waters University, a historically Black college, just before he fatally shot three people at a Dollar General store, according to the school. Authorities said he used an AR-15-style rifle covered in swastikas.
“You cannot say in one breath that you want to ensure that these types of actions never happen again to people of a different race, and in the same breath, you’re whitewashing history … You’re going across the country calling Blacks who speak out against racism … ‘woke,’” said Florida Sen. Shevrin Jones (D), who is Black.
On Monday, at a news conference focused on the major storm headed for Florida, DeSantis announced $1 million to boost security at Edward Waters University as well as $100,000 toward a charity supporting the victims’ families.
Some rivals for the GOP presidential nomination also denounced the Jacksonville shooting. Two of them, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), held office when a self-described white supremacist fatally shot nine Black parishioners at a Charleston, S.C., church.
Haley, who is known for subsequently pushing to remove the Confederate flag from State House grounds, said at a campaign event Monday that “there is no place for hate in America” but also reiterated a message she’s traveled the country with: “Don’t fall into the narrative that this is a racist country.” Scott, who is Black, has made similar comments.
Vivek Ramaswamy, a first-time candidate who is Indian American, has campaigned heavily on criticisms of what he calls “reverse racism” and a “woke racial religion” that emphasizes racial identity. He recently defended calling Black Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) one of the “grand wizards of the modern KKK.” Asked this weekend how he would address a rise in racially motivated violent extremism identified by the federal government, Ramaswamy condemned the shooting but focused on mental health issues and reiterated the country is “obsessed” with race.
The FBI has repeatedly said that far-right violent extremism — particularly in the racially motivated category — is the most active and lethal domestic threat. The Department of Homeland Security recorded 231 incidents of domestic terrorism between 2010 and 2021. Of those, about 35 percent, the largest category, were classified as motivated by racial or ethnic bias; they also were the most lethal.
Openly acknowledging that fact is rare in the GOP, a party in which some have promoted racist conspiracy theories and appeared at events alongside White nationalists, extremism researchers note. After the Jacksonville attack, right-wing podcasters and talk-show hosts with millions of followers floated the idea that it was a “false flag” operation to demonize the right.
In a statement Sunday, President Biden stressed that “we must say clearly and forcefully that white supremacy has no place in America.”
DeSantis’s focus this week on increasing security at schools — which conservatives typically advocate over firearm restrictions — underscored DeSantis’s divide with the many Black lawmakers in Florida who have fought bitterly with Republicans over gun laws. DeSantis this year signed a bill allowing concealed carry of guns without a permit.
DeSantis “isn’t trying to find solutions to real problems, he’s trying to find solutions to problems that don’t exist,” argued Jasmine Burney-Clark, the founder of Equal Ground, a nonprofit working to expand Black political power in Florida.
For instance, Black activists and civil rights groups have levied those criticisms at Florida Republicans’ push for new election laws: an election police force DeSantis hailed as a guard against voter fraud led to 20 initial arrests, mostly of Black men who said they thought they were eligible to vote and were encouraged to register despite convictions for serious crimes that barred them.
More recently, Democrats in Florida and nationally have assailed the DeSantis administration’s Black history standards for schools, which included a call for instruction on “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” Vice President Harris flew to Jacksonville to address the issue, asking, “How is it that anyone could suggest that in the midst of these atrocities, that there was any benefit to being subjected to this level of dehumanization?”
DeSantis’s team hit back at Harris and pointed to standards for the AP African American studies course that DeSantis earlier drew national attention for rejecting — which noted that enslaved people “learned specialized trades” that some later used when freed.
At a rally Monday in Jacksonville, Sonia Smiley nodded as state Rep. Angie Nixon (D) condemned the governor. Nixon, a Democrat from Jacksonville, had said on MSNBC this week that the governor “has blood on his hands” and criticized his rhetoric on race.
Smiley said she didn’t think he should have been at the vigil a day earlier. “We all know who he is,” said Smiley, who is Black and wore a Black Lives Matter T-shirt.
To resounding applause, Black Voters Matter organizer Jamil Davis said the governor “put us in a position where white supremacists feel complicit, enabled and emboldened to do such acts.”
Lorna Bracewell, a White Floridian who is also queer, said she was among those shouting “Shame on you” at DeSantis during his the Sunday vigil. She described a feeling of exhaustion after “taking body blows in this state for years.”
DeSantis was campaigning in Iowa when the Jacksonville shooting unfolded and soon canceled events in South Carolina to stay in Florida and focus on hurricane preparation.
“My thought is, just go back to Iowa,” Bracewell said.
Hannah Allam contributed to this report.