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DeSantis wants to model America after Florida. Civil rights groups are sounding the alarm on his ‘hostile’ agenda

 (Getty/Reuters)
(Getty/Reuters)

For 1,000 days, after a decade of racist violence and unrest in Florida and around the US, a boycott launched by Black residents in Miami called on Black tourists and businesses to stay out of the city.

From 17 July 1990 to 12 May 1993, a boycott supported by the NAACP and other civil rights groups urged visitors to steer clear, inflicting potentially tens of millions of dollars in lost tourism revenue in Miami-Dade County.

Black Miami residents had long been subject to systemic inequality and exclusion from the city’s lucrative tourism industry, but the city’s rejection of Nelson Mandela following his release from a 27-year prison sentence proved to be the tipping point.

Thirty years later, another coalition of civil rights groups has issued travel advisories warning visitors before traveling to the state, where Republican Governor Ron DeSantis has advanced a far-right platform targeting civil liberties, education, healthcare and immigration.

“Governor Ron DeSantis has inflicted deep and lasting damage upon our state, eroding the fundamental rights of our residents and visitors while exploiting the word ‘free’ as a hollow campaign slogan,” said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida.

“We understand everyone must weigh the risks and decide what is best for their safety, but whether you stay away, leave or remain we ask that you join us in countering these relentless attacks,” she added. “Help reimagine and build a Florida that is truly safe for and open to all, and where freedom is a reality, not a hollow campaign slogan.”

The group warned LGBT+ people traveling to the state last month after the governor advanced a sweeping set of policies targeting LGBT+ people, particularly transgender youth, that have echoed in state legislatures across the US.

Other advisories followed from the League of United Latin American Citizens and the NAACP, two of the oldest and largest civil rights advocacy groups in the US. The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT+ political advocacy group, also has joined Equality Florida’s advisory.

“Since the day he took office, Governor DeSantis has weaponized his position to weave bigotry, hate, and discrimination into public law for his own political gain,” Human Rights Campaign president Kelley Robinson said in a statement this week.

In June 1990, Miami officials rescinded a proclamation welcoming the leader of the movement to end South African apartheid after he expressed support for Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat and Moammar Gadahfi.

The following month, Miami attorney HT Smith launched Boycott Miami, encouraging Black tourists and businesses to avoid the state. In quick succession, local, state and national groups – including the ACLU, the National Conference of Black Mayors and the National Organization for Women, among others – canceled or moved their meetings and conventions out of the state.

But unlike that movement, the coalition of civil rights groups behind recent travel advisories are not calling for an economic boycott, but drawing attention to the governor’s far-reaching assault on civil liberties that have animated his newly launched 2024 campaign for the Republican nomination for president.

Meanwhile, his feud with the Walt Disney Company – a tourism mammoth and political heavyweight – has boiled over into lawsuits and spurred the company to pull out of a $1bn project in the state.

More than 137.5 million tourists visited Florida last year, and tourist spending in the state in 2019 totaled nearly $100bn, according to the state’s tourism promotion agency Visit Florida.

Several Black tourism groups have questioned whether the NAACP is taking the right approach.

“The question we all must ask ourselves is, ‘Who does the Florida travel advisory really hurt?’” according to a statement from the Future of Black Tourism, Blacks in Travel & Tourism and the Black Travel Alliance.

“We believe there is a better way to make a statement to Governor DeSantis beyond a travel advisory petitioning African Americans and people of color to stay away from Florida,” the groups added. “Small Black businesses and marginalized communities certainly should not be the sacrificial lamb.”

There are more than 7,000 Black-owned businesses in Miami-Dade County alone, according to the county’s chamber of commerce.

“What’s happening in Tallahassee goes against everything we are as Black people,” according to Eric Knowles, president and CEO of the chamber, speaking to the Miami-Herald.

But a potential boycott is “going to affect and impact Black businesses and my first and foremost responsibility is to help and grow Black businesses,” he added.

Ron DeSantis speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2022. (AP)
Ron DeSantis speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2022. (AP)

Since entering the governor’s office, Mr DeSantis has restricted honest discussion of race and racism in schools and in the workplace, prohibited classroom discussion of issues related to gender and sexuality, and signed measures targeting LGBT+ people and their healthcare, abortion rights, immigrants, voting rights, and constitutionally protected speech.

On 17 May, Mr DeSantis approved a slate of bills that restrict affirming healthcare for transgender minors, threaten drag shows, forbid people from using bathrooms that match their gender identity, and prevent people from using their chosen pronouns at schools.

The legislation follows administration policy restricting gender-affirming care for trans people in the state over the objections of major health organisations and LGBT+ advocates.

One law creates a new informed consent process that requires trans patients 18 and older to see a physician in person for gender-affirming healthcare, which will likely prohibit many trans adults from using telehealth or relying on other health providers such as nurse practitioners for their care.

That ambiguity has left health providers and legal analysts unclear how to navigate the law, which could prompt providers to stop providing gender-affirming care altogether, for patients of any age, according to LGBT+ advocates.

Mr DeSantis also recently expanded a measure labelled by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” law prohibiting classroom instruction on issues related to gender and sexuality, which critics argue will have a chilling effect on LGBT+ people in schools as part of an effort to erase LGBT+ people from public life.

Another recently signed law targeting immigration voids out-of-state driver’s licenses for people without proof of citizenship and bars municipalities from using state money to issue identification cards for undocumented immigrants, and most companies in the state must verify whether their patients are living in the country legally.

Immigration advocates warn that such measures will devastate the state’s construction, restaurant and agricultural industries that rely on immigrant workers.

Florida hospitals that accept Medicaid will also be required to collect their patients’ immigration statuses, which LULAC warns will place an “unjust ethical burden on providers administering necessary medical care and perpetuates discrimination based on immigration status.”

The administration’s migrant relocation programme also will get another $12m, after the governor orchestrated widely derided flights that sent people seeking asylum in the US to Martha’s Vineyard – hundreds of miles away from where their cases were being considered in El Paso, Texas – in his apparent protest of Democratic immigration policies.

“The actions taken by Governor DeSantis have created a shadow of fear within communities across the state,” according to Lydia Medrano, LULAC vice president for the southeast. “Food banks report witnessing individuals seeking one last food donation as they prepare to flee Florida. Families are torn apart as some members choose to stay while others have to leave, foreseeing worsening conditions for immigrants.”

Protesters gather outside the  Four Seasons Hotel in Miami on 24 May as the governor holds  fundraising events ahead of his presidential candidacy announcement. (AFP via Getty Images)
Protesters gather outside the Four Seasons Hotel in Miami on 24 May as the governor holds fundraising events ahead of his presidential candidacy announcement. (AFP via Getty Images)

The Florida Immigrant Coalition – which launched a website named “floridatraveladvisory.com” – advises people to consult an attorney before traveling or reconsider travel to the state altogether.

“Travel to all areas of Florida should be done with extreme caution as it can be particularly unsafe for people of color, LGBTQIA+ communities and individuals who speak with an accent, and international travelers,” according to the advisory. “Every county in Florida poses a heightened risk of harassment, possible detainment, and potential family separation based on racial profiling.”

Last year, Mr DeSantis and Republican state lawmakers pursued the “Stop WOKE” Act to target “critical race theory”, a legal framework to examine systemic racism that its opponents have invoked to broadly restrict discussion of concepts from inequity and social justice to honest instruction on civil rights history and racist violence.

The law, the subject of several federal lawsuits, was followed by another recent measure aimed at diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, or DEI, which the governor said would “encourage diversity of thought, civil discourse and the pursuit of truth for generations to come,” while he continues to rail against “woke indoctrination” and falsely depicts a state school system held hostage by leftist mobs.

Florida also is at the centre of a nationwide trend of challenges against books and materials in libraries and schools. Earlier this month, one of the world’s largest publishers and several prominent authors and families filed a federal lawsuit against a school district where activists have challenged dozens of books, largely involving or written by people of colour or LGBT+ people.

“Let me be clear – failing to teach an accurate representation of the horrors and inequalities that Black Americans have faced and continue to face is a disservice to students and a dereliction of duty to all,” NAACP president Derrick Johnson said in a statement.

“Under the leadership of Governor Desantis, the state of Florida has become hostile to Black Americans and in direct conflict with the democratic ideals that our union was founded upon,” he added. “He should know that democracy will prevail because its defenders are prepared to stand up and fight.”

The NAACP’s advisory was proposed by the group’s board of directors by its Florida State Conference, according to the organisation, and is in response to the “unrelenting attacks on fundamental freedoms” from Mr DeSantis and his allies in the state legislature.

The board’s chair Leon Russell has called the governor’s agenda a “blatant war against principles of diversity and inclusion” in an effort to appeal to a “dangerous, extremist minority.”

“We will not allow our rights and history to be held hostage for political grandstanding,” he added.

The governor, members of his campaign and other right-wing pundits and GOP officials have largely waved off the advisories as a “stunt.”

“Claiming that Florida is unsafe is a total farce,” Mr DeSantis said in a Twitter event announcing his presidential candidacy on 24 May. He called the advisories a “political stunt” from “leftwing groups” who are “colluding with legacy media to try to manufacture a narrative.”

His former press secretary and current campaign aide Christina Pushaw dangled a thinly veiled racist dig at news of the NAACP’s advisory. Ms Pushaw, referencing the name of a Memorial Day weekend festival with a largely Black crowd, wrote: “Does this mean no Urban Beach Week?”

The chair of the Florida GOP suggested that the NAACP’s Mr Russell should move out of the state. “If you think our state is so bad, [the Florida Republican Party] will help with moving costs,” he said.

Republican Senator Rick Scott appeared to embrace criticism that labelled the governor’s agenda as a far-right authoritarian assault by issuing an advisory of his own: he said that his home state is “openly hostile to socialists, communists, and those who enable them.”