Socialist organizing has become a very different task in Florida as Ron DeSantis has pursued reactionary culture war policy positions. But YDSA chapters have been fighting back.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2023 Print Issue, which can be found here.
Socialist organizing under neoliberal capitalism is hard enough, but socialist organizing under fascism is almost impossible. When you know no amount of public pressure will influence your state’s legislature, when violations of labor laws are not only common but expected, and when you and your comrades are under threat every day, it can feel like an impossible mountain to climb. What the University of Central Florida (UCF) YDSA chapter has learned from our past few months organizing in Ron DeSantis’s Florida is that the usual tactics championed by DSA do not always work here, and a different kind of movement is necessary.
Over the past few years, Floridians have been firehosed by fascist legislation so a quick summary is probably warranted. It began in public K-12 education, banning a series of topics (“gender ideology,” Critical Race Theory, etc.) never actually present in children’s education, intentionally strawmanned to develop public support. This quickly expanded in the public school system to the introduction of laws banning the discussion of queer issues at all levels of education; threatening to revoke tenure for professors to enforce compliance; and a complete decimation of campus initiatives that exist to protect marginalized students. These attacks on academia serve as a thin veil to build support for the Florida Legislature’s genocidal intent, as we currently see attacks on the privacy and safety of trans people: denying trans youth life-saving care, seizing medical records from universities to identify queer students, and an ongoing attempt to completely ban gender-affirming surgeries.
This has inspired other historically “red” states to implement a series of copy-cat bills, as just one part of a large-scale reactionary program being carried out throughout the south. All Southern organizers have been tasked with responding to an uphill battle on the electoral front. At the state level, electoral strategy and legislative pressure campaigns have currently been blocked off as an effective avenue – we have not yet built the power needed to wrest control of these institutions.
Labor work also looks fundamentally different in southern states. Living in a “right to work” state puts unions on the constant back foot, making them an ineffective base of support in state-level pressure campaigns as they are in the same position of prosecution by the state.
Organizing under these conditions often requires southern organizers to develop alternative approaches to the ones most often used by DSA. For example, we have found far more success in local electoral work, like the campaign for city councilman Richie Floyd, than in the statewide campaigns that DSA tends to prioritize.
This is not to say that southern organizers should abandon state or even federal-level electoral work. Despite not having the power to undertake state-wide legislative pressure campaigns ourselves, involvement in state-wide pressure campaigns led by other groups can be an effective mechanism for membership development and recruitment of new organizers.
Our chapter had experience with legislative pressure campaigns in the past, organizing local and national campaigns such as the October 6th day of action, 2022 public transportation sales tax, rent control legislation in Orange County, and hurricane response. But take rent control as an example: this bill passed but was immediately held up in Florida courts, and soon after DeSantis signed a ban on rent control. These and other experiences indicated that given the conditions of our organizing, large legislative campaigns are not the most effective methods for achieving meaningful victories, growth, and development.
Fundamentally, despite our chapter’s size, we lack the institutional or coercive power to achieve a victory. If we organize our absolute best on a legislative pressure campaign and get the outcome we were trying for there are few, if any, ways to prevent their eventual rollback.
In response to these roadblocks with larger legislative pressure campaigns, this past year UCF YDSA ran a different type of campaign, using strategies developed from our previous practice that focused on the engagement of rank-and-file members and winnable goal-setting.
We held an event centering on political education and mutual aid in the center of our campus called the “Protestival” (a portmanteau of “protest” and “festival”). The event was held by a broad student coalition but the majority of members, and the vast majority of the leadership, were a part of UCF YDSA. Over the course of the day around 400 people came out to hear speakers, participate in mutual aid projects, and visit our political education booths.
These booths were the centerpiece of the event and followed a narrative of presenting the issue of the legislation, then addressing the communities most affected, where this leads, how it is a natural product of capitalism, and what they can do about it.
The first table “The Legislation and its Effects,” was meant to make the actual content of recent legislation more accessible and fun with games. It was developed and staffed by experienced electoral organizers from UCF YDSA’s student government slate.
To maintain the narrative we had each table “end on a question that the next table will answer.” So the two “identity-based” booths “BIPOC History and Resistance,” and “Queer Community and Struggle” followed. These were each developed exclusively by BIPOC and queer members respectively, with the aim of “meeting the student body where they were at”.
These both directed people to the “History of Fascism” booth and the last booth, “Marxism and Class Analysis.” The purpose was to explain why these attacks are happening and what they are a product of. For these last two booths, we took care to ensure they were developed and staffed by politically developed members trained in effective, praxis-focused political education. After showing attendees that fascism is a desperate attempt to keep capitalism functioning while in crisis, we presented them with a solution. The last booth served to connect identity-based issues with the broader working-class movement, and expose students to Marxism in a friendly and accessible way. From there we would also expose attendees to the rest of our chapter’s work and tell students what they can do about the problems at hand.
It also featured live music and areas to make signs for potential future protests. Towards one half of the lawn, after the political education booths, there were several mutual aid projects. There were sections for a clothing drive, a socialist book drive, a seed bomb station, and a safe sex table that partnered with Planned Parenthood to get free physical resources. There was also a political engagement table run by the school’s NAACP chapter that focused on letter writing to the board of trustees. The final table was for our faculty union to talk to students and raise awareness of the threats to the union.
UCF YDSA is working on compiling everything into a report and publishing it as soon as it is finished, both to act as a blueprint for ourselves and a resource for anyone interested. The aim is to lay out the process as well as the reflections of core organizers to remember why certain things worked and where we ran into issues. For example, while the event was great at engaging less active members and provided an excellent opportunity for leadership development, some had concerns about our coalition strategy, and certain logistics were pushed off and forgotten until the last minute. Hopefully this information can be useful for y’all, especially those in places where legislative pressure campaigns aren’t always feasible.