Just days before killer cop Derek Chauvin was sentenced to prison for murdering George Floyd, a proposed crackdown on protests in the Florida community where Chauvin had a vacation home was voted down by residents.
After accusing the county mayor and sheriff of attempting to strongarm through an ordinance banning protests at people’s homes, commissioners in central Florida’s Orange County met late Tuesday to give actual residents a chance to comment on the proposed clampdown. The measure was inspired by protests around Chauvin’s home after his arrest last spring.
In previous remarks, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings and Orange County Sheriff John Mina had argued the ordinance was essential because the protests had grown unruly at times, resulting in vandalism, arrests, and numerous complaints from residents about their safety and interrupted “tranquility.”
But during the meeting, 10 members of the public showed up for comment, and not one of them supported the ordinance. The measure was ultimately scuttled, the small-town episode pointing to the potential for officials to misread their mandate to maintain order a year after racial-justice protests swept the country.
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According to Sheriff Mina, three residents who live near Chauvin’s vacation home in Windermere, Florida, were supposed to be there, but either did not come at all or failed to stick around because the item was taken up too late in the evening.
Those who did wait around explicitly condemned the ordinance, saying it would trample on First Amendment rights, manufacture more pretenses for protesters to be arrested, and was not necessary given all the other laws already on the books. That includes a new “anti-protest” bill recently passed by the Florida legislature and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Lawanna Gelzer, who is Black, wore a Black Lives Matter T-shirt and said she was concerned about how the ordinance would be enforced. “I am fearful again that we’re giving a pass to law enforcement to pick and choose who they want to enforce this law against,” she told the commissioners.
She said the protests around Chauvin’s home were meant as a larger statement regarding the disproportionate murders of Black people by law-enforcement officers. “It’s because you’re shooting us in the back, you’re killing us, and all we want to do is to be able to hold law enforcement accountable,” she said. “If they would stop doing what they’re doing, we wouldn’t be protesting.”
Like other speakers, Gelzer said that Black people in America have traditionally used protests and marches to bring awareness to issues. “Now you don’t want us to be able to do that because we want to protect somebody who has done wrong to the community,” she said.
Andrew Darling, an Orlando attorney, said he was at the protests last summer and that many residents in the Windermere area actually came out of their homes, sat on their porches, and engaged with the protesters.
He said that by all accounts, the protests were peaceful and that the only two people who are alleged to have committed crimes were arrested.
In a previous commission meeting earlier this month, Sheriff Mina said that in addition to the arrests, there was vandalism and even threats on social media to burn Chauvin’s home down. Mayor Demings, in a Monday editorial in the Orlando Sentinel, wrote that during the protests the residents “endured an often unruly and disorganized group of protesters.”
But a request to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office by The Daily Beast for records of any incidents of vandalism, related crime, or other threats produced documentation of just two arrests, both of young women alleged to have thrown paint on the front door of Chauvin’s Windermere home.
According to arrest reports obtained by The Daily Beast, Katelin Benoit, 19, and Kimberly Guzman, 21, allegedly threw paint on the door during a May 29, 2020, protest and were stopped by sheriff’s deputies in their car after they were attempting to leave the area.
According to court records, Guzman and Benoit were both charged with criminal mischief and pleaded no contest in November 2020. Benoit and Guzman did not respond to a request for comment.
On Tuesday night, Mina continued to claim he’d heard from many upset residents, despite the fact that none of them appeared. He said the ordinance was “lawful” and, like Mayor Demings, cited the fact that the city of Orlando and other nearby locales had similar ordinances.
He tried to take the emphasis away from George Floyd protests and said the ordinance should also be thought of if, say, pro-life groups were to protest outside of the homes of Planned Parenthood employees, or far-right, neo-Nazi groups were to congregate outside of the homes of people of color.
“I think we can all agree that if we were an employee of Planned Parenthood, we wouldn’t want the tranquility of our own home, where our kids stay, to be disrupted,” he said.
He said the ordinance would be a “tool” for law enforcement to handle these hypothetical incidents and promised it would be applied “fairly.”
Mina did not respond to a request for comment.
His arguments fell on deaf ears, as all the commissioners on the board said that the ordinance was unnecessary.
Commissioner Nicole Wilson, who represents the Windermere area, said she worried about the ordinance being used for stops based on trumped-up pretexts. “It seems like we are opening ourselves up for the potential of more abuse,” she said.
She added that she felt for anyone who might have been inconvenienced during the nine days of protest in the area. “But it's a lot worse when what you have to do to get the attention of the world is to march through a neighborhood in Windermere,” she added.
Commissioner Emily Bonilla said she wouldn’t want protesters to show up at her home. “But what I want and what’s right are two different things,” she said.
After the comments, Mayor Demings decided to withdraw the legislation. In the end, he said, “It does not appear that the board has the willingness at this point to pass the ordinance.”
After a request for comment, a spokeswoman for Mayor Demings directed The Daily Beast to his comments at Tuesday night’s meeting.