Gov. DeSantis’ presence at Republican fundraiser draws protests by progressive advocacy groups

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ALACHUA, Fla. — About 30 protestors from a coalition of progressive activist groups protested Gov. Ron DeSantis’ positions on abortion and LGBTQ rights as the governor spoke at an Alachua GOP fundraising event Thursday.

DeSantis was a keynote speaker at the 20th annual Ronald Reagan Black Tie Blue Jeans fundraising event for the Alachua County Republican Executive Committee. 

The event, held at the Legacy Park Multipurpose Center, required advance-purchase tickets to attend and was closed to media coverage.  

Various progressive organizations, including the Alachua County Labor Coalition, North Central Florida Indivisible and the Gainesville chapter of the National Women’s Liberation, participated in the protest.

Laura Blecha, a co-organizer from the Women’s Liberation group and a physics instructor at the University of Florida, said she was unhappy with the statewide 15-week abortion ban which took effect July 1.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ stance on abortion was a key point of contention for protestors at Thursday’s demonstration in Alachua. (Elise Plunk/WUFT News)

“Pregnancy is a life-threatening medical condition,” Blecha said. She and others from the women’s group criticized the bill for having “no medical basis” and for undermining key liberties central to their organization’s belief system. 

“Bodily autonomy is a fundamental freedom,” Blecha said. “No person should be forced to give birth.”

Erica Bales, also with the Women’s Liberation group, said the point of the protest was to make sure Alachua residents heard voices raised in opposition to the governor’s presence and his policies.

“I just want to draw some awareness,” Bales said. “The fact that DeSantis is pursuing an aggressively anti-abortion agenda is ultimately going to be really dangerous for a lot of people and families.”

Other protestors voiced concerns about DeSantis’ lack of support for the LGBTQ+ community. Gainesville resident Susan Browning-Chriss, who describes herself as a “radical retiree,” passed out bright-colored handmade signs with phrases such as “Grab Them By The Midterms” while she cheered at passing cars that honked their approval. She said her longtime connection to the LGBTQ+ community gave her a reason to join in on objections to DeSantis’ presence. 

“I’ve been fighting for 50 years,” she said. She said she feared the governor’s support of the Parental Rights in Education bill, commonly known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, would be a step back in the gains made to advance LGBTQ rights. The bill has been widely criticized for having a chilling effect on members of the community.

Susan Browning-Chriss said she has been fighting for the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights for 50 years and isn’t about to stop. “I’m a radical retiree,” she said. (Elise Plunk/WUFT News)

Her husband, Mike Chriss, also attended the protest. 

“My daughter is in a same-sex marriage,” Chriss said. “I got a lot of dogs in this fight.”

Chriss spoke about his desire to defend people like his daughter from legislation that could potentially threaten their way of life. 

“These are all good, genuine people,” he said. “Somebody’s gotta be there to help them out, you know, to help protect them.” 

The protest elicited a mix of responses from passersby. 

Some drivers honked horns and waved in support of the protesters while others shouted “Republicans forever.” A few people made obscene gestures through rolled-down car windows.

Bobby Mermer, a protest coordinator for the Alachua County Labor Coalition, said he hoped the message to DeSantis and his supporters was clear.

“He is not welcome here,” he said. “He does not share the values of Alachua County.”

About Elise Plunk

Elise is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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