Members of the Florida Highway Patrol confer with police in Gainesville on Thursday, April 25, 2024, on the University of Florida campus as pro-Palestinian protesters held a demonstration nearby. Nine UF protesters were arrested four days later. [ DIVYA KUMAR | Times ]

Gov. Ron DeSantis personally directed the Florida Highway Patrol’s response to the recent pro-Palestinian campus protests in Florida, a top state official said Wednesday.

“On countless occasions, campus and local law enforcement has requested the assistance of Florida Highway Patrol. And on countless other occasions, we have proactively assisted campus and local law enforcement,” said Dave Kerner, executive director of the Florida Department of Safety and Motor Vehicles, which oversees the highway patrol.

Dave Kerner
Dave Kerner [ Florida Department of Safety and Motor Vehicles ]

“In all instances,” Kerner said, “these actions were taken at the direction of Gov. DeSantis.”

His comments came during a DeSantis news conference at the University of Florida campus, near a spot on the campus green where round-the-clock protests have been taking place for 15 days. As DeSantis, Kerner and other officials spoke in praise of Florida’s response to the demonstrations, protesters could be heard chanting.

DeSantis’ office and Kerner’s agency did not respond last week to questions about the governor’s involvement in the protest response. Kerner on Wednesday acknowledged the questions, saying his department was asked if the governor was “personally” involved.

“The answer is yes,” he said.

The governor’s office did not immediately respond when asked to elaborate on Kerner’s remarks. It was unclear how many universities his directives impacted, or how engaged he was in the details of law enforcement tactics.

At least 37 protesters were arrested in demonstrations last week at UF, the University of South Florida, Florida State University and the University of North Florida. The law enforcement response at USF included the use of tear gas.

“As we have seen very clearly, there is a stark difference between Florida and many other states in this nation,” Kerner said. “This is very intentional. Our governor will not bend to the shrill and illogical will of an entitled and reckless super-minority. He will not tolerate for a moment our campuses degenerating into collectives of violence and anti-American and antisemitic dogma, and neither will the Florida Highway Patrol.”

DeSantis thanked state universities and law enforcement agencies for their responses last week, and held them in contrast to “elite colleges and universities that have allowed themselves to be overrun with encampments, graffiti as well as a lot of really nasty antisemitism.”

He pointed to his efforts last year in allowing Jewish students seeking refuge to transfer to Florida universities and investments in security for Jewish Day schools in Florida.

DeSantis said he thought many protesters were joining a “chic cause” without understanding history and “spouting nonsense.”

“It’s very concerning, some of these elite institutions around the country: Are they just graduating a bunch of imbeciles?” he said. “I think unfortunately that’s the case. That’s why a lot of these people are not going to have job offers. You see even a lot of the big financial institutions, which are very liberal, are now saying we’re not going to be entertaining this nonsense anymore.”

DeSantis also linked the protest groups to Hamas and called attention to a chant frequently repeated at protests across the state and country — “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

“Part of it is people can say what they want, but when you’re talking about ‘from the river to the sea,’ you’re essentially saying you want a second Holocaust, that you want to wipe Israel off the map,” DeSantis said. “That’s what Hamas stands for.”

Laila Fakhoury, a UF alumni and part of the UF Divest Coalition, was one of the protesters out Wednesday. She said barricades were set so far away from DeSantis that protesters were not able to hear what he said, but later found out and called it “nonsense.”

“Saying things like that is just like a very classic tactic of trying to conflate the idea of antisemitism with criticizing government, criticizing a military, which is not antisemitic at all,” Fakhoury said. “It’s more than just pro-Palestine or pro-Israel. It’s pro-human at the end of the day, and all of us are standing for humanity. So when we say chants like that, ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,’ it’s literally exactly what it sounds like: that Palestine will be free within our lifetime, and we’ll continue to keep standing up to advocate for that.”

DeSantis also questioned why protesters weren’t out after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack that launched Israel’s military response.

“I’m sure the protesters were all very upset at the fact that Hamas went into Israeli communities and baked babies in ovens, raped women, assassinated elderly people in very brutal ways,” he said. “I’m sure they were very upset about that. Oh wait, no, they weren’t. That’s right. They didn’t care about that. They were completely fine with those massacres happening. And they had no concern about that.”

He added his views on Gaza, saying the territory was not occupied and that it was a Hamas “sanctuary” that focused on terrorism instead of more productive pursuits.

Fakhoury said many of the protesters are Jewish and felt the governor ignored parts of history.

Also speaking at the news conference was Ray Rodrigues, chancellor of the State University System, who said Florida would continue to take a “law and order” approach to the protests.

He said some universities have made “shameful” concessions to protesters, including creating new faculty positions for Palestinians, establishing a cultural center for Middle Eastern studies and waiving charges for those arrested in the protests.

“In Florida, there will be no negotiations,” Rodrigues said. “There will be no appeasement, there will be no amnesty and there will be no divestment under Gov. DeSantis.”

Fakhoury, with the protest group, said the demonstrators would not be deterred. The goals of the protests, she said, go beyond how universities respond.

“It’s not the only thing that matters to us,” she said. ”We’re making a statement and a presence just by being out there with our flags and our keffiyehs and showing people that we are not going to be silenced by these lies and the rhetoric that they’ve been pushing.”

Times Staff Writer Kirby Wilson contributed to this report.

Higher education reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.