Resolute Square

Florida: Report From The Front Line

David Pepper discusses the attack on democracy in Florida and shares stories of individuals fighting back against suppression and censorship efforts.
Published:September 28, 2023

*Published with the generous permission of David Pepper. Read and watch his excellent work at Pepperspectives.

By David Pepper


“I just graduated…” the young man told me.

All you have to do is listen closely.

“…I majored in history…” he continued.

Listen closely, and you’ll hear how much the attack on democracy is seeping into every corner of our country. Impacting lives in so many ways.

“…But because of what’s happening in Florida…”

It’s gotten so normalized, we almost let it pass without realizing how NOT normal it all is.
“…I can’t teach what I wanted to teach…”

If we’re not careful, we start to accept it. As normal.

“…So instead, I’m going to do politics, to fight back about what’s happening…”
But instead of accepting it, we must fight back.

That conversation took place during a forum I had Saturday with college students from the University of South Florida and the University of Tampa.

I later spoke at the King-Kennedy Gala of the Hillsborough Democratic Party.

This was another visit to yet another community on the front line in the battle for democracy we are in.

The reason I prioritize getting on the road, in-person, is not just to loudly raise the alarm about how the far right is attacking democracy, and how we fight back.

It’s also to get a sense of how it’s playing out in different parts of the country.

To watch and listen and learn.

And what I continue to see and hear—from Oklahoma to Florida, from Ohio to Iowa—is that we are all enduring the same, highly coordinated attack on the most essential elements of democracy and the rule of law. It’s the same conversation, the same dilemma, everywhere.

And it’s why that brief chat with that recent USF graduate was so important to share.

So alarming.

Think about it for a moment: a young person dedicated his college years to learning about our history so he could teach elements of that history to younger Americans. About as core as public service gets. Exactly what we hope young Americans will do.

But recent laws enacted in Florida convinced him to fear that if he taught that history accurately, he would be breaking the state’s law. So he felt forced to choose another profession.


And while I’m thrilled this young man is choosing to enter the political arena to fight back against the broken politics that upended his plans, the fact that he’s forced to do that because of government censorship of Black history in the year 2023 is as disturbing as it gets.

But that was only one of many snippets I heard that captured how the far-right’s attack in Florida is advancing on the ground there, in real terms.

Here’s another: in a room packed full of political leaders, who was the official who got the loudest applause at the dinner? (And it wasn’t even close). His name is Andrew Warren.
He's the locally elected state’s attorney who Ron DeSantis ousted a year ago because he’d stated he would not prosecute certain abortion cases. It’s one part of DeSantis’s multi-front attack on democracy and democratic outcomes—ousting an official who was duly elected by the people of Hillsborough County. Again, not at all normal.

Then, amid the discussion I had with those students, I emphasized how important it is that we all register voters all the time. As I say often, a centerpiece of the far right’s attack on democracy is to remove as many voters from the rolls as possible—but not just any voters. They focus on the voters who comprise the diverse majority they most fear will vote them out of power. So WE must do all we can to re-enlist those suppressed voters back into democracy.

And when I mentioned that need, the county party chair of course reminded me of the new law in Florida—now in federal court—whose clear aim is to make that work of engagement and registration far more difficult, particularly for those organizations engaging communities of color. Earlier this year, Florida passed a law adding hurdles and hefty fines ($50,000 per violation) to organizations who do this critical registration work. (The law is being challenged in court right now by numerous groups, including the League of Women Voters). As I said to the group, when you see laws like this, it’s a clear giveaway that the activity they are trying to ban is precisely the type of activity that most threatens their hold on power. So however you can, keep doing it!

Then we talked about the importance of voting early. And of course they reminded me about another change of Florida law. This one passed in 2021, and it wiped out a process where voters used to remain on absentee ballot registration lists for multiple election cycles. Now, Floridians must re-apply for that list every year. After that law passed, hundreds of thousands of voters in numerous counties, who previously were on a list to received absentee ballots automatically, were no longer on those lists the next year. It’s just another form of purging voters from a process that led to higher turnout. Another hurdle added for no reason but suppression of a diverse majority.

But even as I listened to all these examples and more of the fierce attack on democracy taking place in Florida, I didn’t leave without hope.

In fact, I left energized.


Because I also watched and listened to the inspiring stories of those fighting back:

I listened as that recent graduate described why he was joining the political fray to combat the politics that had destroyed his career goal. He knows his history, so he understands that what’s happening is not normal, and must be resisted. So he’s signing up to do the work.

I walked into the room of that gala to see an absolutely enormous crowd, especially for a county dinner in September of an odd year.

And then I witnessed that group of activists stay fired up for hours as they heard of ways they can fight for democracy!

I listened as that crowd cheered the mere mention of the name Andrew Warren—again, the loudest cheer of the night. Why? Because he’s been fighting back fiercely, and they see it. He’s become a champion of democracy and the rule of law, and a household name because of it.

I listened to more young folks, who came up to me after my dinner speech to tell me that, when I talked about the tragedy that far too many extremists are running without opposition (in Florida, the number of unopposed GOP legislators was 40% in 2022!), that they felt like I was talking to them—because they are planning to run for the statehouse next year.(That included one of those students, by the way, already planning her legislative campaign).

I met school board members and candidates who are also standing strong against any effort to ban books at the local level, and an elected elections supervisor describing his team working hard to run fair elections despite regular threats to them and and their safety.

I heard new Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Nikki Fried energizing the crowd with a message of focusing on local and statehouse offices everywhere—and who began her tenure months ago doing exactly that with a historic victory in the Jacksonville’s Mayor’s race. She called on those in the crowd to begin recruiting NOW for statehouse runs in ‘24. And she told them a top priority was to increase voter registration of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters in Florida. Perfect!

And I was honored to meet and listen to Congressman Maxwell Frost…

…who inspired the crowd by talking about how protesting gun violence as a high schooler in Orlando had propelled him down a path that would send him to Congress as its first Gen Z member. And yes, this dinner took place only one day after the President and Vice President created the Office of Gun Violence Prevention, based on the first bill Rep. Frost had introduced as a new Member of the House. Keep organizing, every day, he urged the crowd.

And so many more.

Folks, don’t let the red or the blue or the purple colors used to define our states these days fool you.

From my many in-person visits around the country, I can assure you that we are ALL on the front line in this battle for democracy.

Whether it be that young graduate switching careers or those voters purged from absentee vote lists, we are all paying the price for those attacks—although some (entire communities) pay it far more dearly than others.

BUT whether it’s re-registering voters, or protesting, or running for a statehouse or school board seat, or running elections by-the-book despite threats and intimidation, or enacting change once in office, or working as hard as we can to support efforts to do all this and more, we also can ALL play a role in fighting back FOR democracy wherever we are.
We are ALL on the front line.

I’ll be in Iowa next weekend, and will provide another report.