The 2021 Florida Legislature convenes March 2 under COVID-19 restrictions. Here, the working Capitol appears behind the Historic Capitol Museum. Credit: Colin Hackley
Capitol authorities in Tallahassee say they don’t know if protesters will gather in large numbers in coming days or how they intend to behave, but Florida lawmakers are leaving town — having completed their committee work this week — and instructed their staff members to work remotely at least through Martin Luther King Day on Monday.
Local government buildings adjacent to the Capitol complex in downtown Tallahassee will shutter their doors through the presidential Inauguration Day on Wednesday due to the potential for violent gatherings, local officials announced Thursday.
The Capitol itself is not open to the public due to COVID-19 restrictions.
The FBI and the FDLE issued statements saying they are aware of heightened risk of violence at all state capitols in coming days and are prepared to quell any violence, but they did not disclose how they assess the magnitude of the risk in Florida.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which long has monitored hate groups and is tracking their social-media chatter, said Florida is not the most likely of targets — certainly not as likely a target as the capitals in Michigan, where extremists plotted the kidnapping of the Democratic governor, and Georgia, which just replaced two Republican senators with two Democrats, flipping control of the U.S. Senate to the Democratic Party.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both Republicans, have been under fire from the right since Election Day for refusing to alter the ballot count that gave Joe Biden a presidential victory.
President Donald Trump won Florida, gathering 29 electoral college votes.
Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst at SPLC, said the center’s intelligence suggests white supremacists at the core of the insurrection may not make a massive stand on Jan. 17 as rumored, but may instead turn out in force on Inauguration Day next Wednesday, when Joe Biden becomes president of the United States and President Donald Trump will be out of office.
“They have taken a step back and are encouraging their people not to demonstrate,” Miller said, referring primarily to the white supremacist group Proud Boys, which has multiple chapters in Florida. In fact, the SPLC ranks Florida as second in the nation for active hate groups.
The civil rights organization’s data show that hate groups have been proliferating in Florida during the Trump administration to the point that, as of 2019, they numbered 67 — second only to California, which was home to 88.
However, Florida ranks higher than California, based on the number of hate groups compared to overall population.
Miller said the SPLC thinks the most violent of election-related extremists are primarily gun-rights extremists who do not want to risk members being arrested this weekend and their weapons confiscated, which could legitimize efforts to strengthen gun-control legislation.
Security was already ramped up in the Capitol for pre-legislative committee meetings this week to minimize the spread of COVID-19, but lawmakers told the Phoenix there also was security personnel posted on every floor of the Senate Office Building.
Sen. Linda Stewart of Orlando said senators were briefed by their chamber’s new Sergeant At Arms about security measures, following FBI warnings about potential violence at state capitol buildings after the siege in the U.S. Capitol last week.
Stewart said she felt reassured about the safety of the Capitol following the briefing.
“What I’m hearing is, we don’t know if there will be trouble, but they are prepared and I feel safe,” Stewart said.
Not so for Broward Democratic Rep. Bobby DuBose.
“I’m a black man in America. I’m always afraid. There’s always a threat from white supremacy,” said DuBose, co-chair of the House Democratic Caucus. “Now the rest of the world is waking up to it.”
Adjacent to the Florida Capitol, in downtown Tallahassee, the Leon County Courthouse and Tallahassee City Hall will be shut down not only Monday for Martin Luther King Day but also Tuesday and on Wednesday, Inauguration Day.
“Due to an abundance of caution, local law enforcement made the request to assist with operations in responding to any potential protests in the area of the Florida State Capitol on or around Inauguration Day,” the Leon officials said.
As for state government, most lawmakers and staff members will not be present in the Capitol after today, having concluded their committee meetings this week and having none scheduled for next week.
DuBose, Stewart and Rep. Allison Tant, whose House district includes the capital city, say the danger is fueled by Republicans refusing to denounce the “Stop The Steal” narrative underlying the violence seen so far.
“Stop The Steal” is the rallying cry for those who believe claims that election officials across the country collaborated in breaking the law to cheat Donald Trump out of a second term as president. The extremists stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, leaving at least five people dead, in a failed attempt to stop Congress from ratifying Joe Biden’s presidential victory.
Florida’s Republican leaders, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott and 12 of Florida’s 15 GOP representatives in the U.S. House, publicly supported efforts to help Trump overturn Biden’s victory, even after Biden won both the popular and electoral votes and numerous election-related lawsuits filed on Trump’s behalf were dismissed.
The FBI’s Miami Field office issued this statement, noting its practice of not commenting on specific “intelligence products” such as Florida links to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol:
“Our efforts are focused on identifying, investigating, and disrupting individuals that are inciting violence and engaging in criminal activity. As we do in the normal course of business, we are gathering information to identify any potential threats and are sharing that information with our partners. The FBI respects the rights of individuals to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights. Our focus is not on peaceful protesters, but on those threatening their safety and the safety of other citizens with violence and destruction of property.”
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