May 20, 2024

Editorial note: The views of those interviewed do not reflect the views of the CWPUSA. Our purpose is to inform our members and readers of the daily struggles of workers and oppressed people.

On February 23, 2023 students at six universities and colleges across Florida organized simultaneous protests as condemnations of Governor Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature in their attacks on public education, the working class, and specific facets of the working class such as trans people. The backdrop of these protests was Florida’s 2023 Legislative Session, in which it is writing into law abortion bans, transphobia, the dismantling of academic freedom, and more. We spoke to two of the student organizers who are with the Reform and Revolution caucus of the Young Democratic Socialists of America at Florida International University (YDSA at FIU) who organized the protest in Miami. The content of the following interview is a summary of their responses.

Can you describe the protest?

The idea of a protest fighting for students and workers was introduced by members of our university’s Pride Student Union (PSU). It was initially in response to DeSantis’ attempts to defund Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) program. They invited YDSA to form a coalition around this. It later developed into a protest condemning DeSantis’ attempt to defund DEI programs in addition to broader demands to increase the wages of graduate student workers and to expand gender affirming care provided by the Student Health Center.

YDSA became one of the most important fellow organizations in this coalition. The protest was organized for Thursday, February 23rd and it consisted of hundreds of students chanting and marching across campus to 8th Street and 107th Avenue and back for speeches. Leadership and rank-and-file members of YDSA at FIU gave speeches. The protest garnered local and national media such as FIU’s Panther Now, the Miami Herald, WLRN, Channel 7, Channel 10, and MSNBC. One of the issues that arose with the media coverage was with an interview that one of the student organizers had with WLRN in which he brought up that he is the son of Cuban immigrants and a Socialist, and he spoke on the redbaiting that only serves to disinform. He juxtaposed Cuba’s legislative process with their recent update of the Families’ Code to what is happening in the United States. In the subsequent article, WLRN wrote simply that he is the child of Cuban exiles who “left one dictatorship for another.”

Which organizations were directly involved in the organizing of it?

Members of YDSA at FIU and the Pride Student Union organized the protest with various other groups and nonprofit organizations involvement to varying degrees, such as Grad Wages and Rights at FIU, United Faculty of Florida (UFF)-FIU, SAVE, PRISM, Planned Parenthood Generation Action at FIU, and the Mckenzie Project.

What challenges did you face in organizing and carrying out the protest?

A real challenge we faced was establishing the political angle that the protest would take on, in terms of long-term strategy, to leverage real power towards DeSantis. It was a challenge convincing the liberal nonprofit base to challenge levers of power for that next step. One of the intentions of the protest was to have it on a day in which the Board of Trustees was going to meet, so as to direct the protest and demands towards a tangible and closer target, however, even when many of these attendees knew this, they didn’t want any actions taken to challenge the levers of power. In the planning stage, there was pushback towards the idea of taking the march on a route towards the meeting room of the Board of Trustees.

We realize that we have to organize in a principled manner over just operating a movementist mass. We did not take as much initiative to lead and steer the protest. For example, a lot of nonprofits spoke. Not as many students and workers spoke. There were YDSA members who wanted to but were unable to. It was continuously mentioned that the YDSA members were taking up space. The focus was on DEI programs without a true class analysis. These fellow organizations did not want labor to be a central issue of the protest because they found it alienating and just wanted the DEI focus. YDSA’s idea to take the petition into the Board of Trustees meeting was pushed  back against heavily because it would imperil the relationship between the Board and the student organizations which get their funding from them. They did not want to risk their wrath or anger.

A clear split in priorities and goals became apparent, the liberal elements sought to keep up the momentum by using the nonprofit organizations to take buses of people to Tallahassee to speak before the Legislature. They believe that this will change the hearts and minds of legislators. On the other hand, we see organizing the masses of alienated and atomized workers and students as the feasible and tangible goal. Contradictions will heighten and our politics and our message must continue to be more radical and engage workers and faculty beyond students.

Who were your allies and who opposed the protest?

The Pride Student Union, Grad Wages and Rights at FIU, United Faculty of Florida (UFF)-FIU, SAVE, PRISM, Planned Parenthood Generation Action at FIU, and the Mckenzie Project were allies. Students and members of the Black Student Union and the Asian Student Union were at the event. Consciousness is moving in a better direction. There was no clear opposition other than a smattering of onlookers who jeered as they passed by. If any organizations, the College Republicans must have been against it, but not visibly or explicitly.

The Pride Student Union is a school-funded student organization that does LGBTQIA+ student programming and advocates for those students and their causes on campus, they are a progressive element that have taken part in this most likely due to the heightening of contradictions especially as a social justice organization and due to their current leadership. United Faculty of Florida (UFF)-FIU and Grad Wages and Rights were much more aligned ideologically with YDSA, and had some of the best organizers in coordinating this protest and emphasized that we need to organize students and workers to take it to the boss, not just DeSantis.

What were the intended goals?

The demands were to stop the defunding of DEI programs against House Bill 999, making students aware of the implications of doing so, expanding gender affirming care on campus, increasing pay for grad workers, and against the ‘Stop WOKE’ Act. Our goals were to have this be a rallying point which could garner a great deal of attention from students and workers for the purposes of building a longer term and lasting coalition. In no way did we believe this would lead to the halting of the ‘Stop WOKE’ Act or any of these incoming pieces of legislation. There is a conservative super majority in the Florida Legislature. With DeSantis’ incoming Presidential run on the GOP’s long term mission of stamping out LGBTQ+ people, none of this was a surprise. This was for the longer term,  for building power. To this end, we passed out agitation propaganda and a petition, promoted our first YDSA Student Government Association candidate’s campaign, our Trans Day of Visibility event, and hoped that the amount of media attention on this would lead to media opposition to DeSantis to raise consciousness and raise attention.

Something we had to confront quite regularly, and it is going to be something that continues in our work is the balance between having a broad coalition while having a disciplined message. Clarifying where to place the blame and who and how to attack. For example, issues that arose were targeting DeSantis over the Board of Trustees, the broad invites of nonprofits, and narrow messaging of DEI defunding so as to avoid alienating anyone or any potential partners.

YDSA placed less of an emphasis on nonprofits and more on the students and workers (faculty and staff), and wanted the focus to be on labor and against DeSantis but also making demands of the Board of Trustees and the President of FIU through a petition.

Some in the coalition thought this was alienating, but YDSA pushed back because House Bill 999 establishes that the Board can hire and fire faculty at will. Throughout the organization of the protest, we emphasized a democratic structure in how it was all carried out, which was not really the case. We did not reach a clear consensus on that point with some of our coalition partners. We put out a condemnation post of the university after we learned that FIU was among many other Florida universities that complied with a request by the Governor to turn over a list of transgender students who sought gender-affirming care on campus. Some of our coalition partners felt that was unfair towards the Board.

As trotskyists, we still emphasize a United Front. We must retain our independence and our politics while working with groups we even disagree with and come together, when possible. We have continued to collaborate with such groups despite disagreements.

In terms of organizing as many people as we wanted to, we fell short. This was probably the largest number of people we have ever organized, 150-200 people. But of about 55,000 people on campus. These shortfalls were the case all over the state. There are inroads yet to be made with faculty, workers in general, and students. I will say that it succeeded in cohering elements of the campus and led to cohesive actions in ways we haven’t seen or experienced before.

What are the next steps?

The Free FIU coalition, which is a coalition between the United Faculty of Florida (UFF)-FIU, Grad Wages and Rights at FIU, and YDSA at FIU who are fighting for the freedom to teach and learn without the administration impeding that. We are working to increase consciousness to organize a 1,000 person walkout on April 13th. There were two distinct visions that were clarified through this protest. The groups that recognized the need for a student and workers’ struggle were YDSA, Grad Wages and Rights, and UFF-FIU. We are planning to organize students to organize their classmates to join the walkout, we are providing the training to do so, and we are reaching out to professors to participate. We are trying to disrupt campus operations as much as possible on that day to further build a coalition that fights for increased funding of education, increased protections for workers, for academic freedom, and not just in the university bubble but for other political organizations and labor unions in mounting a resistance to the DeSantis Administration and the corrupt status quo that keeps a vast majority of our state under the thumb of the ruling class.

We have recently had a few victories. Our YDSA candidate for the Student Government Association (Student Senate) won, running as an open Socialist and ran on a $20 an hour minimum wage for campus workers, fighting DeSantis, and fighting for workers’ unionization. He won in a crowded race of 24 candidates and received the third most votes out of any candidate. Conservative candidates across the board lost to liberal or progressive ones.

In addition, a student senator put forth a bill to condemn DeSantis’ ‘Stop WOKE’ Act and to stand up for the rights of students and professors against DeSantis’ attacks. The conservative opposition put forth a petition against this resolution and gathered 33 signees, whereas, there were over 100 signees petitioning for it. None of the conservative student senators went on the record. YDSA, the Pride Student Union, and more groups mobilized to multiple SGA meetings to support the “Can’t Ban Us” resolution, and the FIU Student Government voted 26 to 8 to pass it, despite it getting remanded, voted down in committee, and brought back and voted on.

Contradictions are politicizing greater and greater numbers of people on campus. That is the beauty of Marxists, to take the conditions and provide direction and prove ourselves as fighters for the working class.