Ron DeSantis Has Every Reason to Be Scared of the Dream Defenders—They Are Building Racial Justice
By linking his opponent Andrew Gillum to a group he claims has a “hateful and dangerous ideology,” Florida’s Republican gubernatorial candidate is again employing racist dog whistles—a longtime strategy of the Right.
Throughout Florida’s 2018 gubernatorial race, Republican candidate Ron DeSantis has warned voters that a dark and radical force is out to destroy everything they love.
That force is the Dream Defenders, a black youth-led movement for racial and economic justice formed in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s 2012 murder. DeSantis has done his best to saddle his opponent Andrew Gillum, the Tallahassee Mayor who, if elected, would be the state’s first black governor, with the Dream Defenders’ “radical” baggage. The group has indeed played a role in Gillum’s historic run, and he has signed onto their Freedom Pledge, which includes support for the Freedom Papers, the Dream Defenders’ policy roadmap.
Based on his statements, DeSantis is deeply scandalized by this. “It doesn’t get more divisive than the Dream Defenders,” according to DeSantis, whom he claims adhere to a “hateful and dangerous ideology.” DeSantis has used this warning, that hostile and radical black forces pose a threat to the people of Florida, before. Less than twenty-four hours into the general election campaign, Desantis let out a racial dog bark, warning that Florida voters did not want to “monkey this up” by voting for Gillum. And DeSantis has had to spend much of the campaign convincing the world that his association with boastful racists and white nationalists doesn’t necessarily make him a boastful racist or white nationalist.
But it’s worth remembering that this move isn’t new. Just the opposite. Whenever the most powerful defenders of the establishment feel its foundations begin to realign beneath them, they go berserk, predicting fire and brimstone if the radicals have their way.
The abolitionists, for instance, were called “inflammatory” and “wicked agitators,” who made “every possible exertion to kindle the flame of insurrection among the slaves.” Dr. Martin Luther King was America’s “most dangerous Negro,” a “whole-hearted Marxist” driving the country toward “an extremely explosive situation.” Fannie Lou Hamer was nothing more than an “illiterate woman,” and her Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was made up of “black buggers” who represented “practically no one.” Hamer held so little sway that a Mississippi police officer, right before subjecting her to a merciless beating, felt the need to assure her that “We are going to make you wish you was dead.” And the Black Panthers were a “hate group” that represented “the greatest threat to internal security of the country.”
The story of American progress is littered with episodes like these. DeSantis is just the latest to carry the torch. But today this strategy has lost much of its power. “The other side has always pinned this name tag of radicals on people who want to progress and who want to change things for the better,” Dream Defenders’ spokeswoman Nailah Summers told the Miami Herald.
So what kind of “radical threat” do the Dream Defenders really pose? DeSantis has pointed to three of their positions as evidence: their calls to abolish America’s current system of incarceration, their unsparing criticism of a bloated U.S. military, and their unshakable support for Palestinian self-determination.
According to DeSantis, the Dream Defenders are “radical and dangerous” and, of course, “divisive.” They’ve “attacked our police officers” and “should be defunded.” They’ve called the United States the “biggest bully in the history of the planet,” and claimed, “we should take money out of our military.” And they’ve called “to boycott, divest and sanction the state of Israel” and referred to it as “an apartheid state.”
It’s worth mentioning that Gillum has created some distance between his campaign and the organization, stating he said he had “no idea” what pledge DeSantis was referring to at a recent debate. And both Gillum’s campaign and the Dream Defenders have stated publicly that while they view one another as important progressive players, there remain significant differences of opinion between them, including around issues regarding Israel and Palestine.
However, that hasn’t stopped DeSantis from hammering Gillum for his association with the group.
“Freedom From Prisons and Police”
The Freedom Papers lay out a vision of what our future might look like under a different justice system. The Dream Defenders propose a system built on “people centered humane justice, mediation, resolution and violence prevention” that strives to achieve meaningful justice and healing for victims and perpetrators alike. The Freedom Papers explain that we as a society could then reinvest “the money spent on prisons and police into social services in our community that address the root causes of poverty and violence.”
DeSantis is correct to view this vision of society as radically different from our current one. But that doesn’t mean its undesirable. An overwhelming body of historical and statistical evidence shows that the American criminal justice system is hideously disfigured by racism and hatred of the poor. We lock up black people at rates higher than apartheid South Africa, a regime of explicit white domination. And as the Justice Department’s Ferguson report reveals, the police officers and court systems that represent the state speak openly amongst themselves about their disdain for communities of color while scheming ways to plunder them for revenue.
Rather than investing further in such an immoral system, the Dream Defenders suggest we start moving toward a system where prisons and police are obsolete. In their place, they propose building the sorts of institutions and policies capable of wiping out the actual drivers of crime, which are so often propelled by poverty, desperation and hopelessness.
“Freedom from War, Violence and Environmental Destruction”
For well over a century, the American military has amassed a record of military atrocity — from brutal occupations to unblinking economic and political support for right-wing dictatorships and terror squads in countries spanning the globe. DeSantis, meanwhile, has sidestepped this history and continues to offer uncritical support to what former Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower called “the military industrial complex.”
Perhaps the most chilling example is the U.S. military’s ongoing and decisive support to a Saudi-led war in which Yemeni children are currently being slaughtered. The United Nations has described the horrific situation as “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis” causing “devastating” human impacts.
This disastrous status quo offers plenty of reasons to reduce the military’s budget, but the case has already (accidentally) been put forward by the U.S. government itself: The Pentagon found (and quickly buried) evidence that the country’s military machinery is massively wasteful, losing $25 billion annually to administrative waste.
The Dream Defenders argue that we should redistribute that bloated budget into schools, libraries, food stamps, housing, education, healthcare, unemployment and insurance while moving rapidly to decarbonize our economy in order to avert species-threatening climate catastrophe.
On the issue of Palestine, the United States currently supplies Israel with decisive economic, military, and diplomatic support in its brutal and illegal occupations of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, carried out in flagrant violation of several tenants of international law. The Dream Defenders find this arrangement appalling.
The horrors of Gaza alone are well documented. More than half of the population who are living in what’s now casually called the world’s largest open-air prison, and which the UN warns will be unlivable by 2020, are children. Israel has also placed Gazans “on a diet” that ensures just enough calories “not to make them die of hunger.” Well above 90 percent of the water in Gaza is contaminated and unfit for human consumption, leading Harvard’s Sara Roy, among the world’s top scholars on Palestine’s economy, to conclude that “innocent human beings, most of them young, are slowly being poisoned by the water they drink and likely by the soil in which they plant, all with the knowledge and acquiescence of the world community.”
Over the last decade, the territory has suffered round after round of horrific large-scale assaults—commonly referred to among senior Israeli officials as “mowing the lawn” — at the hands of a technologically-superior nuclear-armed state. Much of the responsibility for that aggression lies with the United States ongoing support for it.
Declaring solidarity between those struggling for justice in Palestine and people of color in the United States, the Dream Defenders have defiantly stated that they:
“Remain committed to a world in which ALL people are free. As Black people fighting for our freedom, we are not thugs and our Palestinian brothers and sisters are not terrorists. For the children who are met with tear gas and rubber bullets as they walk home from school, for the families of those we have lost to police violence, for the communities devastated by economic violence and apartheid walls, we fight. To all those who believe in a world in which all people are free, join us. For those who no longer stand with Black people because of this belief, goodbye. We do not need nor want you in our movement.”
The Dream Defenders objective is twofold. First, to claw decision-making power away from what James Madison described as the “minority of the opulent,” whose ability to bend politics to their will is without rival. Second, to build a world where as many people as possible have the right to participate in our democracy and lead enjoyable, dignified lives through undoing racial, gender, and economic miseries.
Ron DeSantis thinks the group is “radical” and “dangerous” to fight for this world. The Dream Defenders, much like those that came before them, consider it an act of surrender not to.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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ELI DAY was an investigative fellow with In These Times’ Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting. He’s also a Detroiter, where he writes about politics, policy, racial and economic justice. His work has appeared in Vox, Current Affairs, Mother Jones, and the New Republic, among others.