Back-to-back protests for Palestine rock Orlando
Ceasefire protesters rally in Orlando, Fla., Saturday, May 11, 2024. | Willie J. Allen Jr. / Orlando Sentinel via AP

ORLANDO—This sunny central Florida tourist town was rocked by back-to-back protests against the continued genocide in Palestine this past weekend.

The first action took place Saturday morning and involved three young women seizing control of the off-ramp for Interstate 4. They succeeded in blocking traffic with their cars and bodies before unfurling a banner demanding “Freedom for Palestine.” The ramp was located at the exits for Walt Disney World, Orlando’s economic engine. The three were arrested by police.

The second demonstration occurred later in the afternoon in a lakefront park area in downtown and involved hundreds if not thousands. It was organized by the Florida Palestine Network. There was a heavy police presence. After the march proceeded partially around the small lake downtown, demonstrators were blocked in. They were met by police lines, pepper spray, and arrests.

The first demonstration received little local news coverage, but it somehow garnered extensive national and international media attention.  An internet search shows stories and photos of the event in international papers including in Israel, the U.K., India, and other countries—especially right-wing papers like the British Daily Mail.

Police arrest and carry away one of two people arrested in Orlando Saturday. | Willie J. Allen Jr. / Orlando Sentinel via AP

The road blockade appeared to be quickly organized; three young women in two cars with two banners.  There was notice when it began on the internet and a request for support, but it was quickly ended by Florida Highway Patrol troopers. The demonstrators were arrested and charged with failure to obey police directives, a misdemeanor charge. The organizers announced themselves as the “Central Florida Queers for Palestine.”

The second demonstration was better organized and very much larger. The police and press estimated the crowd at 1,200; organizers said the number was higher.

Public officials in Florida have done all they can to suppress public displays of opposition to Israel’s genocide. Gov. Ron DeSantis has made it clear to all state agencies, especially colleges and universities, the necessity of banning all demonstrations and expressions of support for Palestine.

Students at the University of Central Florida attempted to organize a chapter of the group Students for Justice in Palestine but had no luck. The organization was banned throughout the state.

It was surprising therefore that local police and public officials allowed for the downtown march to even proceed. They did, but before the marchers could get halfway around the lake, hundreds of police on foot and bikes blocked the route.

On the other side of the lake, police claimed to have seen a woman with a megaphone speaking to the crowds. A police statement later claimed there was an understanding the megaphones would not be used by the marchers, so a group of officers rushed into the crowd, knocking people over, ostensibly to get to that woman and her megaphone.

They didn’t manage to get to her if they ever really wanted to. After beating many of the marchers, they picked two people whom they had knocked on the ground and arrested them. As for everybody else, they proceeded to pepper spray the onlookers and everyone else in the vicinity.

The two arrested persons, according to local media reports, were charged with battery on a police officer, a third-degree felony carrying a possible sentence of up to five years in prison upon conviction.  No one, excluding the officers who knocked the arrestees down, reported witnessing any violence directed toward the officers.

Many observers on the scene believed the behavior of the officers was intended to signal that the City of Orlando would not tolerate this type of demonstration.

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Thomas Egan
Thomas Egan

Thomas Egan is a semi-retired lawyer who resides in Central Florida. He has traveled extensively on legal and human rights delegations in the Americas.