TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday demanded an apology from longtime civil rights activist Jesse Jackson for comparing the state’s struggle with the Trayvon Martin case to the civil rights clashes with police during the 1960s in Selma, Ala.
Jackson joined the protest this week and during his remarks called the environment in Florida “toxic.” He linked Scott to former Alabama Gov. George Wallace by pointing out that Southern governors have “changed their minds” about their stances on civil rights. While he was governor, Wallace stood in the door at the University of Alabama to try to block the entry of two black students.
In his remarks Jackson said the protest would continue to mount because “this is the Selma of our time.”
Scott in a release blasted Jackson’s comments as “reckless” and “divisive” and said that he should apologize to residents.
“It is unfortunate that he would come to Florida to insult Floridians and divide our state at a time when we are striving for unity and healing,” Scott said.
Scott also criticized Jackson for labeling Florida an “apartheid state” although Jackson made that comment previously and not while he was in Tallahassee.
But Jackson – who spent Tuesday night with protesters at the state Capitol – stuck by his comments Wednesday and said he wanted to change the disparities that exist in the state instead of resorting to “name calling.”
The flurry between the Republican governor and Jackson marked one of the few reactions from Scott since a group began occupying the Capitol after George Zimmerman was acquitted on July 13 in the shooting death of Martin. Protesters have said they will not leave until Scott calls a special session to have legislators change the state’s “stand your ground” law and address other issues such as racial profiling.
Scott, who did meet once with protest leaders, has steadfastly refused to call a session. Since then, the protest has continued and attracted national media attention and earned the support of celebrities such as Harry Belafonte. During most of that time Scott has been traveling across the state.
Scott’s criticism was quickly echoed by other Republicans including newly elected legislator Mike Hill. Hill, R-Pensacola, who is the only black GOP member of the Legislature.
“When Jackson uses language that describes us as an apartheid state and compares our governor to one of history’s most notorious bigots, he is either hopelessly out of touch or purposefully dishonest,” said Hill. Hill also called Jackson’s comments a “disgrace.”
But Jackson defended his remarks in an interview with The Associated Press, ticking off a list of conditions in the state that he said made it “apartheid-like.”
He cited the state’s voting laws, statistics on juvenile criminals and the fact that that more than 40 percent of Florida’s prison population is black while making up just 17 percent of the state’s population.
“In the gaps between blacks and whites, one sees apartheid-like conditions,” Jackson said.
But Jackson added that he doesn’t want to fight the governor, but he would prefer to work with him to change policies like the “stand your ground” law that he said “incentivizes” violence.
Zimmerman claimed self-defense in shooting the 17-year-old unarmed Miami teenager during a fight. Martin’s supporters say Zimmerman profiled and followed him because Martin was black. Zimmerman identifies himself as Hispanic.
Jackson cited the case of Marissa Alexander as an example of how the law has been applied unequally. Alexander, who is from Jacksonville, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a bullet at a wall to scare off her husband when she felt he was threatening her. A judge refused to let her use a “stand your ground” defense.
“If he comes back to work I will talk to him face to face,” Jackson said of the governor. “I’m interested in a resolution, not a fight.”
The protest at the Capitol and organized by a group called the Dream Defenders started on July 16 and so far the state has spent more than $90,000 in overtime costs on Capitol security costs. Protesters are allowed to come and go during the day, but they must remain in a designated area in the hallways after hours.
The group this week their own mock session in the Old Capitol. They also are trying to urge 32 legislators to ask for a special session. Under Florida law, if 32 legislators make that demand, then the Department of State must poll the Legislature. If three-fifths of lawmakers agree, then a special session must be called.
Right now Republican leaders in the Florida Legislature remain opposed to a special session.
Senate President Don Gaetz earlier this week that while he understands that some people are “frustrated” with the verdict that doesn’t mean the law should be changed.
“In our system, a verdict is not then referred to a referendum of the people who are interested in the issue or who are passionate about the issue,” Gaetz said. “A verdict is a verdict.”