DeSantis, Florida lawmakers blamed for racism, hate, by protesters – USA TODAY

A group of Florida faith leaders said they have had enough of what they call a hateful political climate in their state, one they say laid the foundation for the racially motivated killings of three Black people in Jacksonville on Aug. 26.
This weekend, they plan to march on Jacksonville’s City Hall and a call to state leaders – specifically Gov. Ron DeSantis – to end the divisive language and legislation they say has targeted Black people, immigrants, transgender people, educators and others for political gain.
“In what good and civic democracy do elected leaders spend a good amount of time demonizing portions of their population?” said the Rev. Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches. “That’s a serious question, and one that the governor of Florida is accountable for.”
The multicultural, multigenerational “Take Back the Mic” campaign illustrates how faith leaders in Florida and elsewhere are stepping up to fight for social justice in an atmosphere they see as increasingly hostile to the communities they’re tasked with serving.
Spiritual leaders and faith communities have a long history of involvement in social justice movements. Black churches were at the forefront of the 1960s civil rights movement, while Catholic faith leaders openly supported Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers’ efforts to win better working conditions for migrant workers in the late 1960s. And in the 18th and 19th centuries, Quakers helped fuel the abolitionist movement by being among the first to speak out against slavery.
In Florida, faith leaders are working with activists across the state to deliver their message directly to DeSantis.
On Friday, a cadre of college students will deliver a campaign letter to the governor’s office in Tallahassee demanding that DeSantis and legislative leaders “cease and desist” from culture-war rhetoric and focus instead on the socioeconomic issues they say are on Floridians’ minds.
“Eventually, spoken words become deeds,” the letter reads. “Late last month, in the environment your words and deeds have helped create, a racist man decided to move from violent words and attitude to violence, racist deeds and acts.”
DeSantis’ office did not immediately return a request for comment.
The Aug. 26 shooting at a Dollar General store claimed the lives of Angela Michelle Carr, 52, Jerrald Gallion, 29, and A.J. Laguerre, 19, and rattled the city of nearly 1 million residents, about one third of which are Black. The 21-year-old assailant, who police said kept a diary in which he expressed his hate for Black people, then turned the gun on himself.
At a press conference on Sept. 7, an unidentified attendee addressed DeSantis from the crowd and similarly linked the governor’s policies to the shooting, saying they allowed “people to hunt people like me.”
DeSantis, who is running for U.S. president, was booed as he prepared to speak at an Aug. 27 vigil honoring the victims. In response, he described the Jacksonville gunman as “a major league scumbag” and said, “we are not going to let people be targeted because of their race” but was criticized for not explicitly describing the gunman as racist.
However, campaign organizers cite a litany of DeSantis-backed efforts they said have contributed to the tense atmosphere, including restricting the teaching of Black history, repealing gun safety legislation, suppressing voting rights, prohibiting diversity efforts in higher education, squelching work opportunities for undocumented immigrants and criminalizing gender-affirming care for minors.
“We cannot have haters and dividers be the loudest voices in the public square,” said Bishop William Barber II, president of Repairers of the Breach, the social justice organization leading the campaign.
When such rhetoric is allowed to flourish, Barber said, “it creates an atmosphere that gives license to people, and to groups, to take the next step. That’s not to say that political leaders pull the trigger. But they create an atmosphere of division and distrust…. We know that in 1963 Alabama, Gov. George Wallace was saying, ‘Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever’ – and by the end of the year four girls had been killed in Birmingham.”
Faith leaders, he said, realize they can no longer sit on the sidelines.
“In Florida, 41% of the workforce is earning less than $15 an hour,” Barber said. “More than 2.5 million people don’t have health insurance. The fact is that Florida’s life expectancy has gone down. This is why we must take back the mike. Culture wars are attempts to distract and divide and keep people from focusing on the issues that really matter.”
Among the groups participating in the campaign is March For Our Lives, the youth-led organization founded in response to the 2018 mass shooting in which 17 students and faculty were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
“Florida is an important state for us and a battleground in the fight against right-wing fascism,” said group spokesman Noah Lumbantobing. Given the organization’s roots in the state, he said, it only made sense to join the effort.
The state’s policies prompted the NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens and Equality Florida to issue travel advisories earlier this year in which they called Florida hostile to Black Americans, Hispanics and members of the LGBTQ community, respectively.
Such policies, Lumbantobing said, “have grave consequences, and it’s important for young people to stand up against that. This is our future.”
Saturday’s march route will intentionally wind through the downtown Jacksonville site where, Barber said, similar rhetoric in 1960 spawned violence in what came to be known as Ax Handle Saturday. On Aug. 27, 1960, Black demonstrators conducting peaceful sit-ins at whites-only lunch counters were attacked by a white mob wielding ax handles and baseball bats.
The march will also take place the day after the 60th anniversary of the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls in Birmingham, Alabama.
“There’s a kind of poetry at work here in using historical antecedent as a framing for understanding the current movement, and I think that point is critical,” said Meyer, of the Florida Council of Churches. “What we’re experiencing now in Jacksonville is nothing new. We’re in a Groundhog Day state. We keep reliving these moments that have been repeated in every generation since 1875.”
The event will conclude with an assembly detailing the campaign’s plans for voter registration and turnout efforts in 2024 leading up to the November elections. Faith leaders say they’ll also call on other Florida communities to hold similar rallies statewide and hope to ultimately conduct a major march on the capitol.
“What religious leaders are saying is that we have to do more than bury the dead,” Barber said. “We have to ask, as Dr. King did, now only who killed them but what. We must challenge the what.”


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