FIRST ON THE DAILY SIGNAL—Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office has rebutted the Southern Poverty Law Center’s insinuation that he revived the Florida State Guard as an analog to far-right militias like the Oath Keepers.

In the Nov. 16 article “The Dangers of DeSantis’ Militia,” the SPLC quoted a Georgetown Law policy counsel, Jacob Glick, who called the Florida State Guard a “state-backed carbon copy of how a lot of these illegal, private militia groups operate.”

Glick claimed that anti-government extremists “fantasize about being recruited by far-right authoritarian politicians to do their dirty work” and expressed concern that the guard “establishes a structure whereby such groups as the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys can terrorize their perceived enemies with the air of state-sanctioned legality.”

“The SPLC’s claims are absurd and part of a continued mischaracterization by left-wing organizations and media of the Florida State Guard’s purpose,” Julia Friedland, deputy press secretary to DeSantis, a Republican, told The Daily Signal in a written statement Wednesday.

“Twenty-three states and territories have active state-level defense forces like the Florida State Guard, including red and blue states,” she added. “The list includes California, Georgia, New York, Maryland, Oregon, Virginia, and Texas. Many of these state defense forces have a defined mission outlined in law, much like Florida.”

Friedland cited Florida law stipulating that the guard aims “to protect and defend the people of Florida from all threats to public safety and to augment all existing state and local agencies.” The law caps the state guard at 1,500 members and stipulates that it answers only to the governor, who enjoys the sole authority to activate it.

DeSantis reestablished the guard in June 2022, to supplement the Florida National Guard, which he claimed is understaffed.

“The U.S. military has been kicking out great service members over the Biden administration’s unacceptable COVID vaccine mandate, and they are even targeting members of the National Guard,” DeSantis said at the time. “The bureaucrats in D.C. who control our National Guard have also refused to increase the number of guardsmen despite our increasing population, leaving Florida with the second worst National Guardsman-to-resident ratio. By reestablishing the Florida State Guard under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel [Chris] Graham, we have a great opportunity to expand our capability to help people in times of need or disaster.”

Friedland noted that the Florida National Guard has had 12,000 members since 1958, when the Sunshine State had fewer than 5 million people. At that time, the civilian-to-guardsman ratio was 375:1. In 2023, as Florida’s population has surged to around 22 million, the ratio has ballooned to 1,750:1.

“In a natural disaster-prone state such as Florida with potentially active hurricane seasons on the horizon, there is a clear and present need for a more significant civilian emergency response force that can augment manpower and help Floridians in need,” Friedland said.

President Joe Biden’s White House did not respond by publication time to a request for comment on DeSantis’ claim that the Florida National Guard is understaffed.

Friedland noted that the Florida State Guard helped deliver meals, operate a point of distribution for much-needed supplies, and distribute donated goods to suffering Floridians during Hurricane Idalia. Guardsmen also helped assess the damage of the storm and clear debris in the areas hardest hit.

The SPLC suggested that DeSantis would use the Florida State Guard to enforce his conservative agenda, which the liberal organization framed in harsh and hyperbolic terms.

“Since taking office, DeSantis has claimed to lead this battle by trampling on the civil rights of women, students, educators, immigrants, and LGBTQ+ people,” Maya Henson Carey, a research analyst at the SPLC, wrote. “He has signed several bills restricting voting rights, sometimes expressly overriding the desire of Florida voters, and used police officers to arrest past felons who weren’t aware that their right to vote had been revoked.”

This framing echoes the SPLC’s leftist agenda. As I wrote in my book, “Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center,” the SPLC has leveraged its track record of suing Ku Klux Klan groups into bankruptcy to develop a “hate map” that it uses to brand mainstream conservative and Christian organizations as hateful, plotting them on the map alongside Klan chapters.

It targets conservative groups that oppose its agenda on immigration, LGBTQ issues, and parental rights in education. Former employees have said the “hate” accusations are a “highly profitable scam,” and the SPLC has an endowment of over $740 million, with bank accounts in the Cayman Islands.

The SPLC used this framing to suggest that DeSantis’ use of law enforcement to enforce the law represents a draconian attack on rights. Carey paired DeSantis’ decision to use state police to send illegal immigrants to New York with his “restrictive legislation targeting health care, education, and paths to citizenship for immigrants.”

DeSantis signed a law requiring Florida hospitals to ask immigrants about their legal status, and he proposed a law eliminating out-of-state tuition fee waivers for illegal immigrants. The governor framed these moves as a response to the border crisis.

Carey also claimed that DeSantis has “set forth proposals for using deadly force at the border, ending birthright citizenship, deputizing state and local law enforcement to help manage immigration, requiring asylum seekers to wait in Mexico, and deploying the military to assist at the U.S. Southern border.” She framed these moves as “anti-immigrant” without differentiating between legal and illegal immigration.

“With the FSG [Florida State Guard] solely under the governor’s control, it is possible that DeSantis could deploy the guard in similar ways—which is a concern of experts interviewed by Hatewatch,” Carey added, referencing the name of the SPLC program that produces the “hate map.”

She cited Jason Van Tatenhove, a former high-ranking official in the Oath Keepers, which the FBI describes as a “large but loosely organized collection of militia who believe that the federal government has been coopted by a shadowy conspiracy that is trying to strip American citizens of their rights.” Van Tatenhove claimed that the Florida State Guard “seems to be playing the same public relations game his old militia group did.”

Carey also quoted a leftist organization called Task Force Butler, which claims that the guard performs “Oath Keepers training.” She did not present any evidence to demonstrate this claim. Neither the SPLC nor Task Force Butler responded to requests for evidence for this claim by publication time.

Carey also insinuated that the Florida State Guard “has been a bit of a revolving door.” She did not mention the reasons for the leadership changes, namely that retired Marine Chris Graham, the first director of the guard, committed suicide and that Navy Reserve Captain Luis Soler stepped down for personal reasons after graduating the first class of soldiers since 1947. Last month, DeSantis appointed 35-year Marine veteran Col. Mark Thieme to lead the guard.

“Unlike the SPLC, which exists to push a leftist political agenda, the Florida State Guard consists of volunteers who wish to serve the people of their state,” Friedland told The Daily Signal.

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