The Dream Defenders have found themselves center-stage in one of Florida's most hotly contested gubernatorial races.
The Dream Defenders have found themselves center-stage in one of Florida's most hotly contested gubernatorial races.
Courtesy of The Dream Defenders

Who Are the Dream Defenders and What is Andrew Gillum's Link to Them?

"Radical. Socialist. Anti-cop. Anti-Semite. Anti-American." Florida's Dream Defenders have been vilified by Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis and his supporters in the press. DeSantis has criticized his opponent, Andrew Gillum for a pledge made to the nonprofit organization.

Are they as evil DeSantis or his big brother, Donald Trump, would have you believe? There are 150 members of  the Miami-based organization, which is run by and for young activists. The Dream Defenders promote progressive goals such as increasing access to quality education and eradicating private prisons in Florida. Founded in 2012 by local activists to protest the Trayvon Martin shooting, the group has opened chapters in Broward, Miami-Dade, and St. Petersburg, with members across the state.

Director of the Dream Defenders Jonel Edwards says it is "strange" the organization continues to be a main talking point just days before the election because, "it's very clear, [even though] we endorsed Andrew Gillum, that Andrew Gillum doesn’t hold all of the policies and values that we hold....we’re being brought in...as if we’re running for office as well."

DeSantis and his ilk have been attacking Gillum's link to Dream Defenders for months. Paid ads portray the group as "too radical." "I mean, they are definitely anti-Israel," DeSantis said in an interview October 28, before referring to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS), a pro-Palestinean group. "I would say they are anti-Semitic because they embrace the BDS movement, which is anti-Semitic and I am not aware of Dream Defenders trying to boycott any other country in the world."

DeSantis' statement springs from the nonprofit's history of protesting Israel's role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Dream Defenders co-director Rachel Gilmer notes that she herself is half Jewish. She fervently criticizes DeSantis's name-calling. "The claims that because we have been outspoken against the human rights abuses in Palestine we are somehow anti-Semitic are completely unfounded," Gilmer says, adding that the Dream Defenders "fight against all forms of racism."

Here the Dream Defenders are pictured protesting the GEO Group, America's second largest private prison operator.
Here the Dream Defenders are pictured protesting the GEO Group, America's second largest private prison operator.
Courtesy of the Dream Defenders

Gilmer brings attention to the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre where 11 people were murdered by an anti-Semitic man. "I think with the terrible tragedy that happened in the synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday, and that happened just days after the shooting of two black people at a Kroger [grocery store in Jeffersontown, Kentucky], it's very clear who the real anti-Semites are: the far right in this country."

The Defenders have added a link on their website to raise donations for the Pittsburgh victims and have been posting social media updates supporting Tuesday's march against white nationalism. "It's clear that [the far right is] inciting this type of violence against Jewish people, black people, against people of color, against organizations like the Dream Defenders. That’s happening across the country right now. And it's really, really, really scary what they're doing."

The Dream Defenders refute DeSantis's claim that they are an "anti-police, anti-Israel, anti-American" group. "We're a human rights organization and we’re fighting against human rights abuses that are happening all over the world," Gilmer says, "including in occupied Palestine - we stand by that, we’re fighting for human rights and the dignity of people everywhere."

Andrew Gillum's team did not immediately respond to the New Times request for comment, but a representative told the Miami Herald :“The Mayor and the Dream Defenders, who are one of the leaders in the struggle for social justice here at home, don’t agree on everything: He doesn’t support BDS or other efforts that undermine the peace process.”

The Dream Defenders' "The Freedom Papers" advocate for freedom from prisons and police, eradicating poverty, improved access to education, open immigration, no war or violence, and universal health care. "We consider ourselves an abolitionist organization," says director Edwards. The Freedom Papers and foundational vision of the group is part of a community-centric approach. "For the past three years, we basically did a listening project in the community where we went door to door and asked people 'What are the issues you care about? What does safety look like to you?'" Edwards explains continued work hosting community discussions is part of a collective vision of a Florida not "driven by huge corporations."

The Dream Defenders verify that Gillum was one of 30 politicians and four major Democratic gubernatorial candidates to sign the Freedom Pledge, or Candidate Papers, before primaries. The Candidate Papers concentrated on politicians cutting off funding from private prisons (the GEO Group threatened to sue the nonprofit not long after) and the NRA. The Florida Democratic Party also passed a pledge to stop taking money from the private prison industry.

Jeff Bell, president of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office Deputies Association, appeared on Fox News last week to defend the police association's decision to endorse DeSantis over Gillum. "That was a tipping point, the pledge that he [Gillum] signed," Bell told the New Times, "It promises to, not only to divest away from law enforcement, and reallocate money away from law enforcement and the prisons, but in that pledge itself it also promises to support the Freedom Papers." Bell also says that he looked at the Freedom Papers and that in it, "you have anti-Semitic viewpoints on that, racially charged messages that are in there, that is a divisive group, not a group that’s going to bring the community together.”

The pledge that has DeSantis and GOP supporters all hot and bothered.
The pledge that has DeSantis and GOP supporters all hot and bothered.
Courtesy of the Dream Defenders

The Dream Defenders' Edwards says people like Bell are taking Gillum's support out of context. The papers envision a world where cases of police brutality don't dominate the news. "There are much more productive ways to deal with harm in our community than with police and prisons," she says, highlighting the United States' record as the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. "In this time, when people are living in crisis, people are living in poverty - more money towards police and prisons isn't necessarily the solution. That's what we're trying to say. We need more solutions."

One thing is clear. The Dream Defenders don't support DeSantis. "I think for a person like DeSantis - he’s just really clearly scared of our vision," Gilmer says, noting the candidate has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from the private prison industry. "For a person like DeSantis, who just came out today and said he’s in support of ending birthright citizenship in this country... our vision is like the antithesis of his world."

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