8 min read

News Recap Week of May 6-13, 2023

Teacher on bench wearing "don't erase history" t-shirt
Brandt Robinson, a Dunedin high school teacher, in North Shore Park in St Petersburg. Photograph: Zack Wittman/The Guardian

"The situation in Florida clearly represents a threat to American democracy"

Writing for Salon (admittedly on Sunday, 14 May 2023, the first day of this new week) Maria J. Stephan writes, "Florida has become the epicenter of a struggle between authoritarianism and those committed to freedom and justice for all." While people outside of Florida love to mock DeSantis' sagging poll numbers nationally, mock any analyst who suggests that DeSantis is a threat to the country and to write off all of Florida, a state that voted for Obama twice, as Redneck Country, we living in Florida are well aware that we are living in an authoritarian state.

It's hard to miss when the governor of the third most populated state in the country takes time out of his supposedly busy day to tweet support for a man who murdered a homeless person in New York City. "We stand with Good Samaritans like Daniel Penny," the Florida governor tweeted, connecting the New Yorker charged with murder on public transit with a bible story (Luke 10:25-37) in which a stranger attends to a fellow traveler who someone attempted to murder. He provided a link to the same defense fund that helped Kyle Rittenhouse avoid a murder conviction when he shot and killed two protestors in Wisconsin in the fall of 2021.

Though Americans may dismiss Ron DeSantis turning Florida into a failed democracy as unworthy of their scrutiny, people worldwide are paying attention. When I pulled two stories from The Guardian, a British daily newspaper with a global readership, I noticed that two of the organization's top five worldwide stories were about teacher intimidation in Florida. One story was about a teacher who is apparently under investigation for showing an animated film by Disney called "Strange World." The other story is about the state's attempts to intimidate teachers, "'The point is intimidation': Florida teachers besieged by draconian laws," reads the headline. A middle school teacher named Arian Dineen, who lives in Stuart, Florida, about 100 miles north of Miami, told The Guarding for the story, “There are many more important things for the governor to be worrying about. We have a housing affordability crisis, a health insurance crisis, a housing insurance crisis. It’s absurd for the governor and legislature to be worried about teachers indoctrinating students on things we don’t even discuss in class.”

Even more interesting, though, is that when we click on the "In US News" section, The Guardian's readership has four stories in Florida in the top ten.

Though the story about the shark is certainly interesting (I have a thirteen year old child and sharks and alligators are definitely topics here) the story about the "mobile home king" is a truly Florida man story. The subheading of the story, "Billionaire Sam Zell is the largest mobile home landlord in the US, but his tenants say they reckon with disrepair, neglect, flooding and rising rents," captures the report.

Though Zell is a Chicago resident, per the story, it is no coincidence that Florida plays a crucial role in his mobile home empire. I do not have the time to pull up the receipts at the moment in the history of the mobile home in Florida, I will pull a few notes from memory.

Florida was one of the last states to see any sizable population growth. Hot, humid, prone to extreme weather, few people lived in the state, especially in the middle and southern parts of it, until the two World Wars saw a massive influx of military personnel and accompanying industries flood the state. Since the late 19th century, Florida did have some tourist industry, and as was the case in many sunbelt cities, such as Los Angeles and Dallas, the coming and going of the military-industrial complex exploded the cities onto the national scene and tourism, as well as other industries, started to fill out their economies, in the case of Southern Florida, dominate it. This coincided with two essential inventions, the first of which was the home on wheels, the mobile home.

People who could not afford to buy a summer house hundreds of miles from the nearest major US city, for Orlando and Miami were no such places at that point (indeed Key West was bigger than both for decades), sometimes could afford to take a home with them for a vacation in the paradise-like winter months and they did. They also bought small lots to park these trailers.

Image of an advertisement for a mobile home lot in Florida, apparently from the 1950s. I'll provide where I found it below though I am unsure who to give photo credit to.

According to the blog Four Star Homes (This is also where I found the above photo), which I do not consider authoritative, but what they have written lines up with what I know, it was around 1955 that mobile home lots started showing up in Florida. By the mid-1960s, they were commonplace throughout the state. But these weren't really meant to be permanent homes; they were homes for "snow birds" and so the occupants were less vested in them or the state in which they were placed. The tourism industry remained, by then, thriving thanks to the popularization of that second invention, air conditioning. It was these people who dominated the political scene of Florida and, in 1968, under pressure from the Federal Government to take Jim Crow out of their constitution, created the state's fifth and current charter.

Today, Florida has over 820,000 mobile homes, more than any other state, and a state constitution written by people who were out to make a quick buck off of snowbirds. Florida is ground zero for exploiting the people currently living in these mobile homes.

Of course, this week in Florida had other news too. The state Surgeon General's wife is telling people that it was God's plan for the Florida Surgeon General to go on an anti-vaxxing crusade. “His conclusions are not based on the statistics,” said Dr. Frederick Southwick, an infectious disease doctor with UF Health. “He fudged it so even when it wasn’t true, he said it was true.” The Orlando Sun Sentinal notes that this could lead to a fraud charge.

"An allegation of scientific fraud – like the one Ladapo is accused of by Florida ethics experts, other public health researchers, and fellow faculty members – can end careers. This type of conduct can taint the reputation of any institution or collaborators that the accused party has worked with, according to the National Institutes of Health. “If a scientist fabricates data on an NIH grant, for example,” Goodman said, “it could lead to a ban on federal funding and a variety of internal disciplinary consequences.”

Perhaps that is why, according Robert F Kennedy Jr., the anti-vaxxer son of the slain US Attorney General, says, Ron DeSantis wants to "burn the NIH to the ground." The NIH is the Federal health research division that has helped fund nearly every medical breakthrough in the world in the last 50 years.

A story that may or may not be related to Florida's governor wanting to burn to the ground the agency most responsible for researching making us healthier, Florida lawmakers are considering making it legal to build roads using radioactive material. Where might these roads go? Doral is the fastest-growing city in Florida (sixth fastest-growing in the United States) and is in the western part of Miami-Dade County, a Democratic-leaning county. A significant reason for the growth is Venezuelans fleeing the autocratic regime that may have inspired DeSantis. The airplane stunt involving refugees at Martha's Vineyard last year targeted Venezuelan refugees.

On Wednesday, DeSantis signed what he called the "strongest anti-illegal immigration legislation in the country." Adelys Ferro, the Director of Venezuelan American Caucas, said in response to the law, "They criticize and they call the dictatorships in Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua but what are they doing with the people that are actually fleeing those countries?"

As CBS Miami Reported:

Hope CommUnity Center, an Apopka organization that provides services to immigrants, issued a statement Wednesday expressing concerns about the hospital requirement and other parts of the bill.
"Mr. DeSantis and his legislators are willfully ignorant of our immigration system," Felipe Sousa-Lazaballet, the center's executive director, said in the statement. "Undocumented immigrants want nothing more than to come out of the shadows. But the system is a dysfunctional maze that Washington refuses to fix. The Florida Legislature is punishing the wrong people for that and, in the process, dehumanizing their existence."

But these horrifying stories are not the end of the story of democracy in Florida. In several of the stories I pulled from this week the point of the story was that Floridians are fighting back. The story I lead with this week, for example, is about the battle against Ron DeSantis.

From that story:

Floridians are not sitting idly by.
Daily walkouts, sit-ins, marches and teach-ins led by students, teachers, parents, and other civic groups are happening across the state. People are sounding the alarm about the existential threat to US democracy DeSantis represents, while mobilizing around an alternative vision of a Florida for all. Stopping DeSantis' march to the White House will take a united democratic front of movements, labor organizers, business and faith leaders, veterans' groups, and exile communities both inside Florida and across state borders. Beyond that, addressing the deeper roots of authoritarianism in America will require an even bigger and bolder movement that makes the triumph of a pluralistic, multi-racial democracy a generational achievement.

The story about the billionaire exploiting people in mobile homes? I cut the headline short (sorry?). The last of the subheadline reads, "Some have had enough." It is a difficult story to read, but well researched and well worth a look. But it does tell how residents are fighting back.

Or take the story of the teachers under attack here in Florida. In that story is this quote from Carol Cleaver, a middle-school science teacher in Pensacola: “In my county, we’ve already had two teachers be accused of indoctrinating students. Our union is fighting like hell for them. Just like Disney, the teachers union is being punished for speaking out against [DeSantis’] harmful agenda."

Fighting like hell. Having enough. Walking out.

Fascism doesn't happen overnight; it is a slow erosion of rights that can only happen when people stop fighting like hell. We're still fighting in Florida.

This Week in Florida History May 1945

A woman in bathing attire points to a sign that says "Dade County Parks Virginia Beach Colored Only"

This Week in Florida History may have witnessed the birth of the modern Civil Rights Movement nearly a decade before Rosa Parks sat down on that bus. Check out my history of the Haulover Beach Wade In of 1945. Please check it out.