In this Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018, file photo, Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters as his lieutenant governor candidate, state Rep. Jeanette Nunez, left, listens during a rally in Orlando, Fla. DeSantis resigned from Congress on Monday, Sept. 10, to focus on his bid to become Florida’s next governor.
Photo: AP Photo/John Raoux

For more than a month, Florida GOP gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis has been race-baiting the work of the Dream Defenders. That fear mongering, along with heated rhetoric from President Donald Trump, has begun having an effect on the civil rights group, which is why its leadership has grown concerned that Dream Defenders may be in the crosshairs of white supremacists in a state that is home to a man who targeted several Trump critics with pipe bombs.

Just last week, when Cesar Sayoc was being arrested for his brazen act of domestic terrorism, which included sending bombs to high-profile figures such as the Obamas and Hillary Clinton, DeSantis’ misrepresentation of Dream Defenders’ work during a debate increased the number of racist messages they’ve been receiving ten-fold.

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“Andrew Gillum signed a pledge with a radical group, the Dream Defenders, to sign up for a radical manifesto that attacked our police officers, that said they have no place in justice,” DeSantis said some four and a half minutes into the debate last week. “He signed a manifesto that said the U.S. was the biggest bully in the history of the planet.”

He was referring to the Dream Defenders’ 20-page document, which outlines steps that need to be taken for marginalized communities in the state and world to feel secure and free of racist policing, white supremacy, corporate interests, and environmental injustice, among other issues.

The statement doesn’t attack police officers; it outlines measures that make them accountable for abusing their power. The document correctly addresses America’s role in global white supremacy and colonialism. Of course, DeSantis doesn’t have the range to navigate that truth; he was playing divide and conquer among his base. If DeSantis continues along this path, the Dream Defenders fear the rhetoric will escalate to physical violence that could bring harm to its staff and members.

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“People are signing on the Freedom Papers web page saying, ‘I hope you die,’ calling us niggers and saying, ‘Negroes are responsible for most of the crime in this country,’” said Nailah Summers, Dream Defenders communications director. “Our Wikipedia page has been hacked two times already.”

It doesn’t help that Trump tweets about Gillum in the racist terms every other day, which draws Dream Defenders closer into the potentially violent political MAGA fray its members are not equipped to protect themselves from.

Trump is scheduled to visit southwest Florida this evening. Dream Defenders fears he will name drop them at his rally, which might incite his supporters to search for their office. That’s why they’ve taken their address off their website. Partner organizations now provide security during public events—a move they had not considered necessary in the past. Dream Defenders members say they were aware of Sayoc, the man arrested for sending pipe bombs to Democratic leadership. They worry a pipe bomb, or something similar, might reach their mailboxes, too.

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“We’ve seen (Sayoc),” Summers said. “We’ve driven behind that van with all of the MAGA stuff on it and laughed about it.”

Now, DeSantis’ insistence on calling out their organization feels like something worse than politics, said Jonel Edwards, incoming co-director of Dream Defenders.

“Right now, we’re just really in the process of trying to become more secure and getting advice from other folks about what we should be doing because we’re a membership organization,” she said. “We have members across the state and we want to make sure that our people are safe because a lot of this does feel like they’re telling their people to find us.”

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The group would not reveal the new security measures but said they never had to take these measures before DeSantis and other Republicans began misrepresenting their work to appeal to the racist fringe of the GOP base.

Dream Defenders are used to far-right entities and conservative media misconstruing their social justice work. But this campaign season has attracted an unusual level of hostility from far-right circles. Conservative media site Breitbart has a tag devoted to Dream Defenders that includes 14 stories which derisively connect Gillum with the group. The Republican Governors Association ran a 31-second fear-mongering ad that cherry-picked through the organization’s tweets, tying them to Gillum.

“Andrew Gillum. He’s just too radical,” the ad ends.

A union for the Broward County Sheriff’s office has backed DeSantis, citing Gillum’s signing of the Freedom Papers.

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“This is a blatant attack on our law enforcement community, an insult to the citizens we work to protect, and dishonors the memory of our fallen officers,” said Jeff Bell, president of the Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputies Association, in a statement.

That’s not true and is why Gillum has endorsements from police officials in Florida. Still, the erroneous assertions are causing problems for the group.

“He’s dragged police into this, so now we may face a consequence of police repression, and that’s just not something a young organization needs to deal with on top of everything else,” Summers said. “We got founded in part because of shit that police do.”

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The Root was not able to reach DeSantis’ campaign for comment at the time of publication. Gillum’s campaign referred The Root to Gillum’s comments during the debate in which he reaffirmed his support of law enforcement.

During the organization’s six-year period, it has been careful about how it engaged politics, never wanting to come across as favoring a particular political party. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have been fully supportive of liberating people of color, and both have taken money from private prison corporations that harm the communities they serve, as Dream Defenders see it. But the advent of Trump’s rise and his openly racist political platform forced the organization to jump into this year’s gubernatorial race. They endorsed Gillum in the primary via their 501(c)(4), the Dream Defenders Action Fund.

“As part of our endorsement, we put out a statement that very clearly says that Gillum doesn’t hold all of our politics,” Edwards said. “But we know that the Freedom Papers vision we are fighting for is a lot more possible under Andrew Gillum as governor versus any of the other Democratic candidates, and definitely any of the Republican candidates. And after what we’ve seen in the past few elections, it felt really important as an organization of people of color in the state of Florida to ... make sure that people are actually showing up to vote because this impacts our families, communities we serve, and ability to organize.”

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Dream Defenders is one of the most storied civil rights groups in the United States. Its members organized a sit-in at the state capital in Tallahassee in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted for shooting and killing Trayvon Martin. It launched statewide voter registration drives and have led the charge in the state to address climate change in poor communities.

DeSantis has values that run in contrast with their organization’s vision, believes Rachel Gilmer, the co-director of Dream Defenders.

“It’s no surprise that DeSantis is attacking us,” she said. “I think he wants to continue to get money from the private prison industry. He’s in bed with all the folks, these larger corporations and this larger web of political actors in Florida that we’ve been fighting since we were founded.”