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.

Eli Day November 5, 2018

Ron DeSantis is attempting to stoke racial fears by tying Andrew Gillum to the Dream Defenders. (Chris O'Meara-Pool/Getty Images)

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.

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.

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 régime 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.

Pales­tin­ian Self-Determination

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.

Eli Day was an inves­tiga­tive fel­low with In These Times’ Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing. He is a writer and relent­less Detroi­ter, where he writes about pol­i­tics, pol­i­cy, racial and eco­nom­ic jus­tice. His work has appeared in the Detroit News, City Met­ric, Huff­in­g­ton Post, The Root, Truthout, and Very Smart Brothas, among others.
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