Editorial Human Rights

In Sign of Desperation, DeSantis and GOP Attack Florida’s Dream Defenders

Jodi Jacobson

The GOP is attacking Dream Defenders, a Florida youth organizing group, for promoting human rights, dignity, and democracy.

Ron DeSantis, the former Florida congressman and current GOP candidate for governor, is running a racist campaign against Andrew Gillum, his Democratic opponent. In the last weeks before the 2018 midterm elections, DeSantis broadened his racist attacks to include the Dream Defenders, a six-year-old Miami-based grassroots organization run by and for young Black, Brown, immigrant, and white working-class Floridians. Now, in signs of what appear to be sheer desperation at the prospect of the state’s first Black Democratic governor, the GOP has made a national project out of smearing Dream Defenders as a proxy for Gillum, with the Republican Governor’s Association, GOP-affiliated political action committees, and right-wing outlets such as Breitbart all jumping in to help.

“The GOP has put out attack ads and Breitbart has written a slew of articles,” wrote Rachel Gilmer, co-director of Dream Defenders, in an email. “Fox news has mentioned us on air multiple times. And on this weeks’ nationally televised debate, we became one of DeSantis primary talking points – calling us a hate group, and attacking Gillum for signing our candidates’ pledge to not take any money from private prisons.”

DeSantis’s main selling point for governor appears to be that he is Florida’s Donald Trump; lying and vilifying people of color and the poor is his strategy. He has no real policy agenda to speak of—his main pitch is to work closely with Trump, and his response to Florida’s devastating red tide, for example, is a “commission”—and in an election year when health care tops the list of voters concerns, DeSantis didn’t release any plan on health care until the middle of the second gubernatorial debate last week. He also lied about his past votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

DeSantis opened his campaign with a pathetic ad in which he is portrayed teaching his kids to use toy blocks to “build the wall” and reading Trump’s Art of the Deal to his infant son. “Then Mr. Trump said, ‘You’re fired,'” DeSantis reads to the baby, and then quips: “I love that part.” His wife appears to assure us that he’s a good father despite an endorsement from Trump. This is what passes for “leadership” these days in the GOP.

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The campaign went downhill from there: DeSantis warned voters not to “monkey this up,” and white supremacist groups from across the country have made blatantly racist robocalls to potential voters. Racism is nothing new for DeSantis: HuffPo’s Amanda Terkel reports that DeSantis has supported conspiracy theories about Black Lives Matter, aligned himself with crackpot Islamophobic groups, claimed that the “Three-Fifths Compromise” was beneficial, and spread racist tropes about Barack Obama.

Now DeSantis has turned to attacking Dream Defenders. Why? Because it is a racial and economic justice group that, while small, is a potentially powerful political force made up largely of youth of color, a long-underrepresented voting bloc. And the vision set forth by Dream Defenders threatens everything for which DeSantis stands and for which he is paid by right-wing groups to advocate.

Dream Defenders was founded in the wake of the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed 17-year-old teen shot dead by George Zimmerman. Martin’s killing sparked national conversation about so-called stand your ground (SYG) laws, which hold that individuals have no duty to retreat and may use any level of force, including lethal force, if they perceive a threat. SYG laws effectively encourage vigilante “justice.” As Gillum, who has called for repeal of such laws, noted in an MSNBC interview, “The fact that you have an individual who becomes judge, juror and executioner all in their own minds under the protection of the law in the United States is a deep travesty of justice.” Studies show such laws are used disproportionately to justify the killing of people of color.

Florida, generally considered to be the legislative laboratory for laws supported by the National Rifle Association, was the first to pass such a law in 2005, and was followed by at least 30 other states. The NRA endorsed DeSantis for governor in September; it is no surprise DeSantis is attacking an organization and by extension a gubernatorial candidate devoted to reducing gun violence through sane gun regulations.

Dream Defenders organizes young people to advocate for a new vision for the state of Florida, articulated in a document called the Freedom Papers and developed over a two-year statewide, collaborative grassroots process. “We had community meetings and town halls across the state and really asked people in our communities and our neighborhoods what they cared about,” Nailah Summers, the group’s communications director, told Rewire.News. “What would we need to be a free Florida? What would we need to make sure everybody has what they need? So, we went, and we listened, [then] we went back to the drawing board and we created the Freedom Papers which then we shared with our membership and edited with our membership and the community.”

Now they are organizing “on campuses and communities across Florida; Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, St. Petersburg, Tampa and Orlando, in Gainesville, and Tallahassee. Sometimes in Jacksonville,” Summers told Rewire.News.

“In Florida and across the country, politicians choose corporations and profits and to line their pockets over the interests of people every day,” Summers continued. “The seven freedoms that we came away with were freedom from poverty, freedom from prisons and police, freedom of mind, a free flourishing democracy, freedom of movement, freedom from war, violence, and environmental destruction, and freedom to be. Those were our seven.”

In other words, the Freedom Papers represent an articulation of the hopes and dreams of many people in the state who have been long disenfranchised. They own the document; it is the product of their input and therefore a powerful organizing tool. It is a vision for better lives for all Floridians. 

Inherent in the Freedom Papers are calls to fully fund public education, dramatically reduce gun violence, effectively address the rapidly mounting environmental problems in the state, and end voter suppression, among other things.

DeSantis and the GOP have branded this agenda “radical.” And there is a reason why: Each of these goals threatens powerful corporate interests. Eliminating private prisons, for example, threatens a multi-billion dollar private prison industry that has grown dramatically under the Trump administration. Profiting off imprisonment of both U.S. citizens and immigrants held in detention, companies like CoreCivic and GEO Group rely on both high rates of incarceration of people of color, and on taxpayer-funded contracts for their profits. GEO Group is a generous donor to Florida politicians and gave $100,000 to DeSantis’ campaign in August alone. Florida Senator Marco Rubio is a major beneficiary of GEO Group donations, as is current governor Rick Scott. Andrew Gillum has pledged not to take donations from GEO Group and others. (Although in the past many Florida Democrats, such as Senator Bill Nelson and Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz have accepted campaign donations from the private prison industry, increasingly and under pressure they are shunning such contributions.)

Advocating for full investment in public schools in Florida threatens the largely unaccountable multi-billion dollar charter schools industry, which increasingly relies on taxpayer funding at the expense of public education and particularly ensuring lower-income children have access to excellent schools. Advocating for sustainable environmental policies to save Florida’s natural resources would mean changes for the highly profitable corporate agriculture industry in the state. And sane gun regulations would diminish the power of the NRA and undercut the gun industry’s profits. You see how this goes.

DeSantis claims Gillum is also “radical” because he signed a candidate pledge based on the Freedom Papers, which reads in part:

We can live in a state where no child is left alone, in the cold, or behind bars, where children feel free and safe when they walk to the store, play in the park, or are on their way to school in the morning. We can live in a state where parents and teachers are given everything they need to support the raising of our children. We don’t have to let another parent lose their child to a bullet, a badge or a dollar sign. This Florida is possible, but only with a drastic shift in our politician’s priorities – one that values the needs of everyday people, rather than fattening the wallets of a few.

Imagine: A world where kids don’t have to worry about getting shot at school or going hungry. Terrifying.

But the threat to those now in power is real: A mobilized and engaged electorate in Florida would change priorities for public investment in so many areas the GOP claims are too expensive or unaffordable, as they shovel more and more public money and resources into the coffers of the one percent. It’s a scary prospect to the Republican Party, which in fact relies on voter suppression, hatred, dehumanization, and threats of violence for its power in the service of making the already powerful evermore powerful.

At a time when white supremacist domestic terrorism directly encouraged by the president, the GOP, and the NRA is on the rise, and when sitting members of Congress and the president have spread virulently anti-Semitic tropes in speeches and through social media, DeSantis is also twisting Dream Defender’s anti-racist platform to claim it is anti-Semitic, a strategy no doubt aimed at misleading Jewish voters and feeding racial prejudices.

A sign-on letter now being circulated by progressive groups in support of Dream Defenders reads in part:

The Dream Defenders were founded to save people’s lives. We’ve watched them stand up for people, putting their own bodies on the line. We’ve witnessed them feed people and fight for people’s basic needs in the face of a Governor who has cut education and affordable housing, rejected Medicare expansion and denied climate change. We’ve witnessed them fight against hate and bigotry. This includes fighting against the rise of racism, anti-Semitism, islamophobia and xenophobia coming from the very far right groups that now slander them.

We stand against these attacks and firmly in support of the Dream Defenders. An attack against them, is an attack on all of us.

These attacks are not just about the Dream Defenders. They are an attack on our collective vision and values as everyday people, who believe that our world must change. Their “Freedom Papers” is a common-sense vision, created by hundreds of people and supported by dozens of Florida grassroots organizations. We believe that everyone deserves quality food, housing, healthcare, education, safety. Together, we are fighting against a society that prioritizes profit for a few, over the wellbeing of the many.

Our communities are struggling, and we don’t have time to wait. In the face of natural disasters, evictions, a healthcare crisis and crumbling public schools, we need candidates to use their platform to present a plan for how we will fix our society, not bully those doing the work every day to protect our future. The right wants to keep us divided so that we won’t rise together. We must continue bring people together across difference, so we can fight against the real problem- the people at the very top who profit from us struggling divided.

This vision, a better life for all, is why the right wing is attacking Dream Defenders and, by extension, everyone who believes in human rights, dignity, and democracy. A Black progressive governor with a track record of getting things done and an organized, progressive youth vote is very a frightening prospect to the people and groups who profit off of disenfranchisement, inequity, and the proliferation of guns. So, DeSantis and the GOP are spending far more time attacking and lying about Dream Defenders and Gillum’s affiliation with them than they are articulating any vision of their own.

Because apparently, they have don’t have one.

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