Gov. Ron DeSantis forcefully defended himself Thursday from an insinuation that he played a role in a white supremacist killing three people at a Dollar General store in Jacksonville’s New Town neighborhood last month.
DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate, spoke during a news conference at Culhane’s Irish Pub in Jacksonville. Most of his remarks focused on his administration’s defiance of the COVID-19 policies of “both White Houses of the last two administrations.” But he drew more attention for how he responded to a question about his policies.
The person who raised the governor’s ire is not a journalist. Tim Robinson is an Orange Park resident who said he served in the Army and the Air Force for two decades before moving to Northeast Florida six years ago.
Robinson, a Black man, questioned DeSantis about policies that he said hurt “people like us” and allow weapons to get into the hands of “immature, hateful people that had caused the deaths of the people who were murdered a couple weeks ago.”
DeSantis cut him off before he could complete his question.
“I’m not going to let you accuse me of committing criminal activity,” DeSantis said. “I’m not going to take that. … That guy was Baker Acted. He should have been ruled ineligible (to have a weapon). But, they didn’t involuntarily commit him.”
When Robinson countered that he was trying to speak his truth, DeSantis interjected again.
“No. No. There is something about the truth. It’s not ‘everyone has their own truth.’ No. You don’t get to come here and blame me for some madman. That is not appropriate, and I’m not going to accept it.”
The Dollar Store gunman, Ryan Christopher Palmeter, was held under the Baker Act in July 2017 when he was 15 years old. He was held for three days and released. He bought the weapons used in the shooting spree legally in April and June of this year.
The gunman left behind racist writings for federal agents, the media and his parents. The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office says it will release the writings, but it has not yet done so. Sheriff T.K. Waters has said repeatedly that the gunman wanted to kill Black people.
Thursday was DeSantis’ second appearance in Jacksonville since the Aug. 26 shooting, but it was the first time he had accepted questions from reporters.
Robinson said later that DeSantis’ policies conflict with his oath as a military officer. The governor misunderstood what he was trying to convey, he said.
“I didn’t start off what I said as a Black or white thing,” he said. “The governor being white, or his background, I don’t care. I care about the office he holds and the way it negatively impacts my life and the people I love.”
Hours after the shooting, Edward Waters University history professor David Jamison told reporters the rhetoric that has come from Tallahassee has encouraged racist beliefs.
DeSantis has infuriated the Black community with a series of actions, including the elimination of diversity and inclusion programs in education, restrictions on teaching racial topics in schools, redistricting that reduced Black voting power and Black history education standards that suggested slavery, in some ways, benefited Black people.
Critics say DeSantis pushed those issues as part of his “war on woke” to benefit his presidential campaign.
“I would say the only reason things have ramped up is because of the spotlight put on our governor who’s running for president,” said Jamison, who has focused on the African diaspora in his scholarship. “And so a lot of the policies get more national attention than otherwise. But I think on the ground, the people of Jacksonville generally are not buying into it.”
DeSantis spoke Thursday from a restaurant that fired an employee in 2021 after the person complained to management about a consumer who appeared at a Halloween-themed party dressed in Blackface.
Across town from the DeSantis event, pastors gathered at St. Paul AME Church to kick off a 10-day fast and call on the governor to “stop spewing hate.”
The heated conversations come as the families of the victims prepare to bury their loved ones.
Angela Carr and A.J. Laguerre will have funerals Friday. Jerrald Gallion’s funeral will be held Saturday morning.