Dreaming the future in Florida
The world changed in 2020. In her book The Rise of a New Left, Raina Lipsitz examines how radical organizations used the momentum of the BLM protests to propel their projects forward. In this excerpt, she meets Rachel Gilmer, Dream Defenders’ co-executive director and considers the challenges of engaging in explicitly socialist organizing in a state like Florida.
Public support for the 2020 protests was substantial. Especially compared with the Obama-era wave of Black Lives Matter protests circa 2013 to 2016—which were sparked by the equally horrifying deaths of, among others, Trayvon Martin in Florida, Eric Garner in New York, Michael Brown in Missouri, Philando Castile in Minnesota, and Alton Sterling in Louisiana. In June 2020, 74 percent of Americans said they viewed Floyd’s killing as a sign of broader racial injustice—vastly more than the 43 percent of Americans who said that the deaths of Black people at the hands of police were a sign of a larger problem in 2014. Most of the protesters were young and/or college-educated. Surprisingly to some, studies indicate that most were white.
Depending on where you were, it felt like everybody was in the streets for weeks on end. In some cities and towns, protests consisted of three people or fewer, or were limited to individuals holding up Black Lives Matter signs at random intersections. It reminded me of the 2017 Women’s March, when satellite marches sprang up around the world and throughout the United States, including in small towns that had rarely, if ever, seen protests of any size. In New York’s rural Greene County, which is 90 percent white and voted overwhelmingly for Trump, around 1,000 people—Black, white, and Latino, young and old—showed up to protest Floyd’s murder. It was a stunning turnout for a tiny, conservative county (population: 47,000). One intensely humid summer day in 2020, hundreds gathered in New York City’s Washington Square Park for a rally to defund the police. A young woman of color was shouting into a microphone. “Defund, de-stigmatize, de-carcerate, and decriminalize!” she declared, momentarily stumbling over the words. She then called on four white men in the crowd to stand behind her and hold up a large, heavy banner. “It’s time for white men to do the work!” she yelled to cheers and applause. There was a brief scramble as half a dozen young white men surged forward, eager to adopt the role of foot soldiers and heed the general’s call. Suddenly there was a flash of lightning, followed by a crack of thunder. The sky opened and sheets of rain poured down. One of the speakers crowed that nature itself was on our side.
Young Black Radicals and the ‘Great Humbling’
Meanwhile, in Miami, a national organization called Win Justice had helped assemble Florida for All, a statewide coalition of progressive groups. The mission was to get out the vote for progressive candidates in races up and down the ballot and throughout the state and organize around issues like immigrants’ rights and racial justice, voting rights, and environmental justice. Members included the Service Employees International Union Florida (SEIU FL), Organize Florida, and Dream Defenders. While these groups had come together to support certain policies and candidates—and, they had hoped, to deliver Florida to Biden in the 2020 presidential election—Dream Defenders had the most explicitly radical mission. It was founded in 2012 after George Zimmerman killed seventeen year old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. When Zimmerman was acquitted, Dream Defenders occupied the Florida State Capitol for thirty-one days and thirty nights, demanding a repeal of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. They didn’t get the repeal, but they did lead the longest occupation of the state capitol in recent memory and generate national attention.
A Black-led organization, its members identify as abolitionists “fighting for a world without prisons, policing, surveillance and punishment”; feminists (“Black feminism at its core is about fighting against hierarchy, violence, disposability and domination and for a world in which all humans—men, women and gender nonconforming people—are seen and valued”); and socialists (“we can live in a world where we all take care of each other, where everyone has what they need to live a full life, and the needs of the common good are prioritized over the selfi sh desires of a few”). They are also proud internationalists: “We stand with oppressed peoples internationally and fight against all forms of racism and hate—antisemitism, islamophobia, transphobia and sexism . . . The same tear gas used in Ferguson is also used at the Mexico Border, in Standing Rock and in Palestine.”
Dream Defenders’ relative youth, radical politics, open partisanship, and Obama-era roots place them in the vanguard of the new left. And the obstacles they have encountered to building a more just world reveal as much about the political moment as their open embrace of abolition and socialism.
Rachel Gilmer is Dream Defenders’ co-executive director, and Nailah Summers is the group’s co-founder and, when we spoke in December 2020, its communications director. Both women were about to turn thirty-three, and they were feeling discouraged. Biden had won the election, but lost Florida by a significant margin: roughly 375,000 more Floridians cast their ballots for Trump. And the state legislature had remained firmly under GOP control; Republicans had retained their majority in the Florida Senate and gained a 78 to 42 advantage in the Florida House. Gilmer and Summers said that they and their fellow organizers had been referring to those outcomes—disappointing midterm results, a devastating presidential primary loss (Dream Defenders had endorsed Sanders), significant Democratic losses in the state legislature, and Trump’s overwhelming victory in Florida—as the “great humbling.” Two years earlier, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, a Trump acolyte, defeated Andrew Gillum, a progressive Black Democrat. It was bleak terrain for run-of-the-mill corporate Democrats, let alone Black socialist feminist organizers.
There were a few bright spots. In 2018, 64 percent of Floridians voted to restore the franchise to people with past felony convictions. (Voting rights were not restored to people convicted of murder or felony sexual off enses.) And in 2020, Florida became the first state in the American South to vote to institute a $15 per hour minimum wage, which means the state’s minimum wage will rise from $8.56 to $15 by September 30, 2026. The measure passed with 60.8 percent of the vote, just clearing the 60 percent minimum required for approval. In many parts of the state, raising the minimum wage proved far more popular than either Trump or Biden.
“I think individual candidates get politicized and labeled,” Summers said. “It’s a combination of people being able to see an issue more clearly than a person, and the right spends so much time talking shit about whoever the candidate is, and they don’t spend as much time talking shit about the measures.”
Gilmer also saw a glimmer of hope in Florida’s ballot initiative results. “With the uprisings this summer, we saw regular protest marches happening in parts of Florida where I don’t know if they’ve ever seen progressive, visible political activity in that way, happening for months. I think that there is a huge opportunity to harness that energy and actually be organizing some of these rural parts of the state that are just completely ceded to the right, and that progressive organizations have no infrastructure or investment in.”
Gilmer continued: “Part of our ‘great humbling’ is that, in this year when the NBA had shirts that said ‘Black Lives Matter’ and there’s all these TV commercials where people are saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ and [singer-songwriter] Shawn Mendes is calling Dream Defenders and saying, ‘I want to come to a protest,’ and we’re visibly seeing mass amounts of people in the street—it’s not inevitable that all of that is going to lead to actual material changes in our communities. It’s not inevitably going to lead to political power.”
Both women had come to their politics as students, and both described Dream Defenders as their “political home,” although they had found their way to it from diff erent points of origin. Summers grew up in Miami. Her grandparents came to the United States from Cuba in the 1960s. “They were working class in Cuba,” she said, “and they came over to New York . . . My grandpa was a cook in a hotel in New York, AFL-CIO. My grandma was a union seamstress in a factory. But they always joked that my aunt, who’s a Democrat, and my mom, who’s a Democrat, and me, that we’re ‘socialists.’ ”
Growing up, she added, she was more conscious of racism than socialism. “There’s a lot of anti-Blackness that made me really want to get away from there,” she said, referring to Miami. “I’m half-Cuban and half-Black, and that had a big impact on the way I saw race growing up.”
Later in our conversation, she said, “Even my friends growing up were very, very, racist . . . I had this period of anger, and learning more about movements, learning more about organizing, learning more about even Black history that I hadn’t gotten in school, that put me on this sort of inevitable trajectory.” When Trayvon Martin was killed, she felt like she “couldn’t take it anymore” and threw herself into local efforts to hold Martin’s killer accountable, helping to found Dream Defenders in the process. Gilmer, who has lived in Florida since 2015, grew up thousands of miles away, in Oregon. “My dad’s Black and my mom’s Italian and Jewish,” she said, “and honestly, growing up in such a white place, I always felt very isolated around my identity and . . . had a lot of internalized racism around both class and race, and really just wanting to fit in in the white suburban town I grew up in.” Going away to college, where she took a class on James Baldwin, and getting involved with a youth organization in her college town were formative experiences for Gilmer, who had spent her whole life “feeling like there was something wrong with me.” Those experiences taught her that “there’s nothing wrong with me or my family, and there’s a lot wrong with the world.” She also became more aware of how people were organizing to change it. After graduating, she went back home to Oregon, where she got “very involved” with the “very white” Portland Occupy. A year later, when Trayvon Martin was killed, she was riveted by Dream Defenders’ takeover of the state capitol. “It was really, really inspiring . . . to see young Black people confronting power in that type of way,” she said. She could see herself doing that kind of work for that kind of movement. A few years later, she moved to Florida.
Like other young organizers throughout the country, Gilmer and her fellow Dream Defenders eventually had to face the fact that, despite having attracted a following and inspired folks across the country, they had not yet amassed any “actual power.” That led to a period of grappling with questions of organizational strategy. “What does it mean to be trying to build power in a state like Florida?” Gilmer said, recalling some of those questions. “What is our plan?” She went to Florida to help Dream Defenders “figure out who it wanted to be and what it wanted to do.”
Initially, Gilmer said, she and many of her peers saw socialism as “a white thing.” But around the time of the Zimmerman verdict, she traveled with a group of organizers to Brazil to meet with members of the Landless Workers’ Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or MST, in Portuguese). Meeting fellow Black people in another part of the world who “saw themselves very clearly as part of a socialist political tradition,” she said, helped her to see the bigger picture, one often obscured by US blindness to other countries and perspectives. A couple of months after the Brazil trip, a Palestinian American co-founder of Dream Defenders who had grown up in South Florida brought a keffiyeh to the organization’s fi rst march. “When we went to Palestine with him,” Gilmer recalled, “that was another moment of meeting these international revolutionaries who . . . so clearly identified as part of this socialist political tradition.” Seeing themselves as part of a global community of people of color struggling to meet their basic needs under capitalism was, Gilmer recounted, “very politicizing.”
When I asked about the challenges of engaging in explicitly socialist organizing in a state like Florida and a city like Miami—although Dream Defenders has chapters throughout the state, Gilmer and Summers are both based in Miami— Summers lowered her voice to a half-whisper. She was getting her car serviced in a predominantly Cuban neighborhood, she explained, and “I’m not even going to have this conversation indoors.”
– an excerpt from The Rise of the New Left by Raina Lipsitz