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Jacksonville activist Ben Frazier to protest Florida's 'anti-riot' bill before United Nations in Geneva

Ben Frazier Jr., founder of the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, said he will specifically speak out against Gov. Ron DeSantis' controversial "anti-riot" law.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A vocal civil rights activist for better police and COVID-19 policies for Black citizens and against Confederate monuments in Jacksonville is headed to Geneva to address the United Nations Committee to Eliminate Racial Discrimination.

Ben Frazier Jr., founder of the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, said he will specifically speak out against Gov. Ron DeSantis' controversial "anti-riot" law Tuesday at the invitation of the international body.

The former television news anchor has been a frequent and vocal critic at government meetings as well as rallies on racial equality and was even arrested when he tried to attend one of the governor's news conferences in a state building.

But this time, the 72-year-old said he will tell the UN committee how DeSantis' “Combating Public Disorder Act" violates the United States' 1994 entry into an international treaty calling for the elimination of racism and discrimination.

He is speaking because the coalition is one of a number of groups challenging Florida's so-called "anti-riot" law, along with Black Lives Matter Alliance of Broward, The Black Collective and the Florida State Conference of NAACP.

"We are saying that the state of Florida and governor has launched an all-out racially discriminatory attack on Black people and trying to turn back the hands of time, turn back the progress of the civil rights movement," Frazier said. "So we are asking the international body to take a closer look at what the governor is doing."

The Committee to Eliminate Racial Discrimination was begun in 1969 as the UN's principal international human rights program to define and prohibit such acts in all sectors of private and public life. Committee members from 18 countries monitor human rights violations across the world, declaring that racial discrimination should be outlawed. 

Ben Frazier speaks out

Frazier is a Raines High School alumnus who became a broadcast journalist in his younger day and the first Black TV anchor at Jacksonville's WJXT-TV who also worked in Detroit.

He formed the Northside Coalition in 2016 to improve social, racial, and economic justice in that part of the city, demanding more attention to the need for police accountability and reform in Jacksonville.

He joined protests for independent review of Jacksonville's police shootings. He has protested for removal of Confederate monuments from city parks and better lighting and sidewalks along New Kings Road after numerous crashes and pedestrian fatalities.

In January he was handcuffed and charged with trespassing in a public building prior to DeSantis' news conference. The charge was dropped after he and attorney John Phillips threatened legal action, saying he wanted to confront the governor on his COVID-19 policies.

He calls them human rights violations, and that is the same thing he has said about DeSantis' “Combating Public Disorder Act.”

Public disorder bill and appeal

The bill was approved in April 2021 in the wake of racial justice protests against police across Florida and the United States following the 2020 death of George Floyd during a Minneapolis arrest.

While still allowing for the right to peaceably assemble, it included new criminal offenses and harsher penalties for participants in violent or disorderly rallies, protests and mob intimidation.

DeSantis said it takes a "robust approach to uphold the rule of law, stand with those serving in law enforcement and enforce Florida’s zero-tolerance policy for violent and disorderly assemblies."

But Frazier said the bill is discriminatory and stifles human rights and fundamental freedom, pointing to other things the governor has done that violate what the UN committee was established to deal with. 

"He has defended measures to suppress the Black vote in Florida," Frazier said. "That's discrimination. He has drafted congressional redistricting maps to make it harder to elect Black candidates. And he has designed this anti-protest law, which is a violation of our First Amendment rights of free speech, to protest and assemble, designed to punish Black community organizers and their supporters. That's discrimination."

The law was declared unconstitutional and unenforceable in September 2021 in a preliminary injunction by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee, who called it "vague and overbroad" and an assault on First Amendment rights of free speech. And the Northside Coalition, NAACP and other groups are also challenging the constitutionality of the law in court.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on that legal action after the governor appealed the judge's ruling.

No decision has been made on the appeal.

Much is at stake

But it was the coalition's legal challenge that led to Frazier's UN committee invite, and he said he is "flattered and honored" to speak to before the committee in Switzerland. But this goes farther than him and the Northside Coalition, he said.

"The bottom line is on this trip to Geneva, we are in effect accepting the baton in the relay race of history," he said. "We are accepting that baton from the hands of civil and human rights activists who have in the past so courageously blazed the trail before us."

Frazier departs for Geneva this weekend and speaks before the UN committee on Tuesday.

dscanlan@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4549

Click here to read more from the Florida Times-Union.

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