Two Reports from the American Battlefield
The Left Fights Back -- But is Still Under-armed
Welcome Dear Readers! Today’s newsletter has two linked pieces. In the first, “In Your Face Ron – Democracy is alive and well in Florida” – we provide you a “Good News” first person report on the youth-fueled -- and rapidly increasing -- pushback to DeSantis’ fascist policies. In the second, “Is it not Espionage When an ex-President Does It,” we explore the continuously worsening problem of unequal justice in the U.S. by comparing the espionage cases against Donald Trump and Jack Teixeira.
In Your Face Ron – Democracy is alive and well in Florida
The kids were exhausted by the attacks on their existence. The kids were frustrated that the adults in positions of authority saw fit to ‘protect’ them from books and not from gun violence. The kids were angry, and sad, and confused, and horrified. Through it all, through every tearful testimony, every impassioned plea, one person had a most curious expression on her face.
Orange County, Florida School Board Member Alicia Farrant…smiled.
Maybe she was proud of herself. After all, it was her social media post about a Drag and Donuts event at Boone High School that drew the attention of far-right ideologues. It was Farrant who made sure the worst goons on the internet saw her post. It was Farrant who made sure this event made its way to the State Department of Education, resulting in the cancellation of a beloved event put on by Boone High School’s QAA (Queer & Ally Alliance) three years running.
Caption: A smiling fascist says dumb things
In her smile, dripping with condescension, a grotesque rictus twisted with cruelty and smugness, we see the perfect distillation of the fascist threat menacing the United States, a baleful admixture of staggering ignorance and stupefying hatred. They hurt us, and they like it.
It’s not a pretty sight.
Let’s back up a little. The reason dozens of high school students, and many times more than that in parents and supporters packed the building to standing room only on April 11th is by now an all too familiar set of circumstances, especially in the rapidly worsening climate of anti-LGBTQI fervor unleashed by the unhinged GOP supermajority in Florida.
Boone High School’s Queer & Ally Alliance invited Mama Ashley Rose, a local drag performer, to speak to students at an after-school event called Drag and Donuts. They’ve held the event before. Three years in a row, actually. Here’s what used to happen: Mama Ashley Rose talks to the students about the positive impact drag has had on their life, everyone eats donuts and learns something and then the world continues to spin on its f@#$%&g axis.
Shouldn’t have to be noted, but let’s note it anyway - what we’re talking about here IS NOT a drag performance. It was a discussion. People talking. Circle shaped pastry consumption. That’s not adult entertainment. That’s not pornography, or indoctrination, or demonology or whatever other slander the peninsular theocrats want to call it. It’s kids learning about the importance of an art form that has been quite literally a lifeline for countless queer people throughout history.
And though the cancellation of the proposed Drag and Donuts is the narrow reason for this week’s confrontations at the school board meeting, ultimately, this discrete event can only be understood in the context of one of Florida’s hallmark pieces of heinous legislation: the “Don’t Say Gay Bill.”
Ron “Pudding Fingers” DeSantis signed HB 1557, the so-called “Parental Rights in Education Bill” into law in March of 2022. The anodyne text is a master class in deliberate ambiguity and deception.
"Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards."https://www.npr.org/2022/03/28/1089221657/dont-say-gay-florida-desantis.
Critics immediately saw through the oily sidesteps of DeSantis and his cronies in the Florida Senate and House. It’s about protecting kids from sexual materials! It’s about indoctrination! Bullshit. This bill was designed to silence queer voices, a nasty little piece of legislation to turn back the clock on the last few decades worth of advancement for LGBTQIA+ rights.
Naturally, DeSantis and Republicans scoffed and hemmed and hawed when people with a functioning moral sense started calling the bill by a far more accurate descriptor:
Don’t. Say. Gay.
The critics of this hate filled bill were immediately vindicated. Stories filed across the country and across the world detailed the confusion and chaos unleashed in Florida schools:
The high-altitude view cannot adequately convey the pain in the immediate aftermath of this bill’s passage.
Teachers being told by admins to remove safe space stickers and rainbow flags. Books being banned that feature no discussion of sexuality (like “And Tango Makes Three” - a book about penguins. Really). Teachers and media specialists self-censoring books. Empty bookshelves. Pride Flags taken down. Teachers unsure whether they can display pictures of their husbands, wives, partners. Kids cut off from quite literally lifesaving representation.
One problem in this instance though, a drag performer coming to talk to high school kids for an after-school program:
In the Equality Florida, et al. v. DeSantis, et al. case (in which the School Board is a named Defendant), the State filed its Motion to Dismiss. As part of that Motion to Dismiss, the State provided clarification and guidance on the meaning of HB 1557 Parental Rights in Education. Contained within these motions is the following paragraph, which clearly notes that the GSA event does NOT EVEN FALL WITHIN THE PURVIEW OF THIS LAW.
“For the same reason, the statute does not prohibit intervention against LGBTQ bullying, participation in extracurricular activities (such as “Gay-Straight Alliances” or books fairs), and even after-hours tutoring, ECF 47 ¶¶ 8, 118–19, 121, 184, among many other examples. That is not “classroom instruction” covered by the statute.” – page 18.
To repeat: this event was not illegal under the stupid law.
Jen Cousins, parent, activist, generally pissed off at the bullshit - tried to have the event cancellation added as a formal agenda item for the school board meeting, which would have allowed for a fuller discussion. Parental Rights in education, right? Let’s talk about it. Her request was denied.
If you had anything to say about it, you’d have to speak up during the public comments section. You’d get sixty seconds.
Caption: the flag that strikes fear into the heart of bigots everywhere
The kids made the goddamn most of their minute.
“Most of all, students deserve to be loved. We want to lift each other up. We want to provide safe spaces where kindness and acceptance are priorities. Stop getting it our way. It is shameful to be opposed to that.”
-Boone High School Student, Scarlett Seyler
“It is specifically about controlling and prohibiting students who are different from you.”
-Boone High School Student, Elise Hill
“Did you know that in 2022, more than half of transgender and nonconforming individuals attempted suicide? You know why that is? That’s because of people like you, member!”
Student Organizer and Activist, Will Larkins
(The member in question here, of course, Alicia Farrant)
Most of the speakers voiced opposition to the cancellation of Drag and Donuts. And the vast majority of the speakers that day were the people most directly impacted by the interference of Alicia Farrant and the state Department of Education: students.
In their testimony, the abstract becomes concrete. The far right’s attempted erasure of the LGBTQI community isn’t just a ‘culture war’ issue. It’s an attack - on very real human beings, in this case young adults who are left confused and angry at being targeted. Why, they ask, are the group of people so concerned about our ‘safety’ content to turn a blind eye to ongoing sexual harassment and bullying? Why are the people so concerned about our ‘safety’ going after drag speakers while providing ideological cover for the daily mass slaughters from gun violence?
The last of these, the question of gun violence, was especially resonant as a large continent from the group Moms Demand Action, a national gun control organization with numerous local chapters, showed up and showed out at the event too.
If you’re so concerned about the kids, why won’t you do anything to stop them from being killed? Why are you using your power, your authority, to further marginalize?
The question - why - hangs in the air.
With each eloquent expression of indigitation and outrage, the crowd erupted in a sea of thumbs up, or wiggling fingers - American Sign Language for ‘silent applause.’ Audience members are of course forbidden from clapping, hooting and/or hollering. Otherwise, one can imagine, the largely sympathetic crowd would have exploded in support. The kids are damn powerful speakers.
Sure, there were a few opponents of decency in the mix. Bonnie Jackson, a failed candidate for the FL House, took the lectern to spew hatred and in the process shine a spotlight on her own compounding ignorance, asking why these kids weren’t in school (the answer: high school let out hours before the meeting even began).
A few people in the crowd could be spotted wearing Moms 4 Liberty t-shirts, while another man wore a shirt directing people to “Ask me About Jesus.”
A prompt best left unasked.
When it was time to wrap up public comment, and the school board prepared to move on to more important matters like a local teacher’s use of Tik Tok, the students in the crowded room took advantage of a five-minute break to once more make their voices heard.
As they filed out, they broke into chants.
“You ban books, you ban drag, kids are still in body bags.”
“You ban books, you ban drag, kids are still in body bags.”
“You ban books, you ban drag, kids are still in body bags.”
Right wingers love to show up to school board meetings and stir things up.
In the early days of the COVID outbreak, many school boards were caught off guard by the well-organized, frequently aggressive presence of right wing, anti-science crowds demanding an end to all COVID countermeasures within schools. They showed up shouting, they dominated headlines. They got meetings canceled and postponed.
Though many overlapping networks of groups and individuals on the right played a role in targeting school board meetings, the group known as Moms 4 Liberty staked out an early claim as one of the most well organized. Founded by Sarasota County Florida’s Bridget Zeigler, Indian River County’s Tiffany Justice, and Brevard County’s Tina Descovich, they call themselves a “Parental Rights” organization, which sounds like a halfway decent thing to pursue (I too think parents should have rights, in that I think all human beings should) - until you dig into the details.
Moms 4 Liberty tried to ban books about MLK and Ruby Bridges, they’ve opposed efforts against gender inclusivity, and they’re big supporters of Don’t Say Gay. Parental Rights, it turns out, is a euphemism for the right to hate. (Alicia Farrant is a proud member of Moms 4 Liberty)
The far-right groups targeting school boards quickly expanded their targets and tactics, generating national headlines by fulminating against the teaching of Critical Race Theory in schools, even though CRT isn’t taught outside of colleges and even though if you offered any of these fuckers a million dollars to define CRT they absolutely could not do so.
Who’s using which bathroom? Is the math too woke? These are the kinds of pressing issues occupying the minds of this mob, worked into such a lather that school board members beefed up security, and even began receiving death threats.
As goes the local school board, goes the country. These are all one movement.
The penultimate expression of this movement’s aims was of course January 6th - a coup attempt coordinated at the highest levels of the Republican Party. School boards banning Drag and Donuts and militias storming the Capitol braying for Mike Pence’s blood aren’t separate items - they’ll are all pieces of a whole, the attempted fascist takeover of the United States. The Coup is ongoing. The coup is everywhere.
The targeting of school boards isn’t an isolated act; it’s part of the nationwide effort to impose fascist rule in all fifty states. Shock, violence, intimidation, silencing of dissent, illiberalism - they are fueled by hate. And they are completely hostile to democracy.
They don’t care that most Americans support LGBTQIA+ rights. Or that the majority of Americans oppose book bans. They don’t care that kids without access to these supportive books are more likely to commit suicide. There is no human cost too great for their pursuit of power.
With Boone High School, with Drag and Donuts, with the screaming and shouting and tears and smiling and legislation and protest, the micro is the macro.
The solution, as it turns out, is the same at the micro as at the macro:
We fight back with love. And donuts.
Outside the school board meeting, at a student organized protest, emotions spilled out into the Florida evening, still raw. Up against a low wall, body bags arranged, and gravestones noting the human toll of decades worth of mass shootings.
When the police on the scene told speakers they couldn’t use the PA anymore, they spoke up, sans amplification, voices still powerful.
Those Jesus shirt people, those Moms 4 Liberty types, didn’t bother to stick around. We’d all have to wait till next time to engage in a street seminary.
For over an hour, the testimony limited to one minute inside the school board meeting flowed freely. Those denied the chance to speak did so - a powerful symphony. A former teacher. A former student. A Moms Demand volunteer, still in grief from the Columbine shooting, the most well-known school shooting from a period when the grotesque violence was such a novelty that it shocked an entire nation.
And yes, there were donuts.
There was more than enough grief and sadness to break your heart, it’s true. But that wasn’t the dominant note. The clearest resolve, the message repeated over and over, the one I hope keeps the fascists sleeping with one eye open:
“What do we do when we’re under attack?
Stand Up. Fight back!”
Caption: THIS is what democracy looks like
“Is it not Espionage When an ex-President Does It?”
Why was 21-year-old National Guardsman Jack Teixeira handcuffed, perp walked, and placed under arrest – all within mere weeks of his illegal activity coming to the attention of law enforcement, and why is he overwhelmingly likely to be convicted and do substantial jail time for espionage, while Donald Trump – who provided more tightly held classified information directly to a Russian government official, stole classified documents, and obstructed justice – has still not been charged six years after his first offense and more than two years after he left office? There is no acceptable reason – and we should not accept or permit this situation.
Let‘s briefly examine the arguments deployed to explain why Trump is not already in jail for espionage:
No Intent: Argument: he knowingly took the documents, but never intended to share, expose, or use them. First, if this weren’t Trump but a normal human being, who would even advance this argument? No one does something for no reason – and there is no “good” reason to steal classified documents. Second, the laws concerning classified information, which Trump signed and acknowledges signing – don’t require the establishment of intent – the act of theft is the crime. This is why Teixeira is in jail – although at this point, we have no idea what his intent was.
Limited Damage: Again, the law does not care about ultimate damage that can be traced back to espionage. The level of damage is assessed up front when we decide what classification level to use to protect the information. With the TOP SECRET Codeword documents Trump stole we expect “exceptionally grave damage” from their exposure – and we legally assume exposure when the documents are removed from the spaces where they can be legally stored. And the Intelligence Community already assessed that there was damage from what Trump revealed to the Russian Ambassador and Foreign Minister in the Oval Office.
Complex Investigations Require Time: Well, a successful prosecution requires diligence and time – but as we note with Teixeira – and every single other American charged with espionage in the history of the nation except Donald Trump – the initial arrest and charging only require probable cause. Equal justice demands equally swift arrest and charging for equivalent crimes – although admittedly the prosecution of well-resourced defendants is likely to require more time.
He Was the President: Trump signed agreements to safeguard classified information and he violated them. There is no carve out clause or exception for the President in the Constitution, DOJ memos, or legal precedent – except for the DOJ memo limiting the ability to charge the President while in office. He is not retroactively protected and has been out of office – and continuing to perpetrate espionage, for over two years.
As a former Military Intelligence Officer and National Security Executive, I spent 20 years protecting the classified information I was exposed to and responsible for -- and sweating multiple polygraphs – constantly worried that even one inadvertent slip of the tongue could cost me my career – even my freedom. Why are thousands of my colleagues doing the same every day – following the rules – only to be chumped by Trump’s actions and the abject failure of the DOJ to do its job?
Not only is Trump getting away with espionage, but failure to prosecute him is itself legal precedent and normalizing such behavior – making it more likely that others will do the same – and make it harder to prosecute them when they do.
At great fear of seeming like the proverbial grumpy old man who thinks everything is going downhill – let’s be clear. The first piece in this newsletter illustrates the inherent goodness in Americans and our ability to renew democracy. But the failure to adequately and secure justice for Trump’s law breaking is the perfect example of the undercurrent that runs the other way – increasing impunity for our elites that is at this point indistinguishable from authoritarian societies.
Recent stories would have you believe that the right’s transgressions such as the elimination of abortion rights, book banning, removing elected African American officials from their positions in Tennessee are fueling an irresistible backlash against the fascists that will right the ship and put us back on the back to the American democratic experiment. This is a delusion.
Don’t get us wrong – the backlash is real, it is important, we need to fuel and expand it. But it is not going to do the trick by itself. Limited protests and “voting harder” should be considered defensive tactics – and you never win a war by defense alone. To prevail, we need to move over to the offensive with forces that have yet to be drafted into the effort.
You know, most people are unaware that the U.S. Army prior to the Civil War, which became known as the Union Army upon hostilities – was not a powerful or even a capable fighting force. Grant himself concluded that the volunteers who joined after the war started were far more effective man for man than the long-serving soldiers. And, not to denigrate the liberals and progressives who have been carrying on the fight for us so far – it is the Americans still sitting on the fence because they have so much to potentially lose by engaging – that will make the difference for us all.
So What? We must find vectors and mechanisms that allow us to harness this untapped combat power so we can take the fight to the bad guys.
What that looks like to us is a national anti-fascist effort that steers clear – as much as possible – from the rights-focused, single-issue movements such as March for Our Lives, Law Enforcement Reform, Black Lives Matter, etc. – because these movements allow the right to easily develop messaging campaigns that make sideliners fear joining them -- and to isolate and contain them.
Let’s be clear – we are members of many of these groups ourselves – yet we require at this point in time a national effort that allows us to transcend the limitations of each of these groups and enable the new “joiners” to portray themselves – to themselves and others – as supporting not just a national cause – but a cause that has a prayer of actually changing the underlying dynamics and trends that are slowly destroying American democracy.
That cause can only be equal justice under the law – which is the tie-in to the opening of this piece. This is the battlespace where the right is most in the wrong and progressives hold the clear moral high ground.
Unless there is an obscure movement in place exactly such as we describe, we need a new Movement that is focused solely on equal justice under the law. Its primary objectives are:
To attract fence sitters -- and those already involved who have the bandwidth -- to make a significant contribution to the cause of democracy;
To influence those who pull the strings to change camps; or at least adopt a position of neutrality;
To withdraw societal cover for the impunity enjoyed by the right and plutocrats;
To achieve actual equal justice under the law validated internally and externally by objective third parties.
The movement’s strategic Lines of Effort include:
a. The full illumination of current injustices and the communications program to make them broadly understood by all Americans.
b. The building of the network of people and resources that constitute and animate the movement; and their leverage to generate sufficient network effects to prevail over the right.
c. Full engagement in the financial battlespace including direct pressure on corporations and business owners, boycotts, work stoppages, even general strikes if necessary.
d. The methodical reduction of impunity through new laws and increased and equal enforcement of existing laws.
Getting from Here to There. Admittedly, we don’t how to make all this happen – but we’re working on it. We know it’s got to be organic. We know it’s got to attract fence sitting white people who vote democratic but otherwise don’t engage in the fight. We know it’s got to draft deeply on long held democratic principles to attract the unengaged, to provide them a defensible position in their peer groups, and to provide them some defense from attacks from the right. And joining must be more compelling than watching. We’ll provide more detail as we further examine, analyze, and model this idea.