February 4, 2024

Barrington Salmon: Those who care about Florida’s children must defend them

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Journalist Barrington Salmon was a Florida journalist for almost twenty years. This op-ed for the Florida Phoenix rings the alarm for children in Florida. 

As we watch the sustained attacks, the pain and the suffering Florida’s so-called leaders continue to inflict on our children, I often think of the African proverb, “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.”

A major part of our responsibility as adults is to care, protect, feed, nurture and raise them to be decent, considerate, loving and compassionate human beings. Which is why caring adults across the Sunshine State should be deeply distressed and infuriated at what is transpiring. Distressed and angry to witness the spate of multi-pronged attacks against teens, children and young people, but more importantly, the concern about the psychological, emotional and psychic damage these attacks are causing.

Florida’s children and teens are enduring intense pressure on several fronts: the evisceration of public education; the reluctance by Gov. Ron DeSantis and far-right conservatives to even consider sensible gun-safety policies and legislation; banning of books about and by African American, Latino and LGBTQ authors; working to systematically erase Black history; gagging and attacking teachers with threats of prosecution or running them from their jobs; incessant bullying and intimidating of students and young people; pulling apart of diversity, equity and inclusion programs in colleges and businesses and more.

But that’s not all.

Lust for power ahead of children’s needs

DeSantis and conservative/Trumpian/MAGA public officials have been disassembling Florida’s social service safety net.

This is illustrated by them refusing to allocate money or enough of it for school lunch programs to feed hungry children; rejecting no-strings-attached federal government dollars to expand Medicaid that would allow the state to enroll 1.4 million people; not prioritizing access to quality healthcare; continuing to siphon off money from traditional public schools to give to church-affiliated and private schools, and passing punishing draconian laws to further alienate and marginalize gay, transgender and LGBTQ children and teens.

This pointless cruelty and the lack of empathy and compassion is by design. DeSantis and villains like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott revel in the heartlessness and appear to be trying to one-up each other in the malevolence sweepstakes.

DeSantis, his co-conspirators in the legislature and political allies, have abrogated their sacred responsibility to our children by putting their political ideology and lust for power ahead of children’s needs.

They have shredded the social compact which essentially is an honor agreement where there are certain rights and agreements between those elected or chosen to serve and the people who have chosen them. They should not be allowed to get away with it.

With the tyranny of the minority, the compact is only flowing in one direction because those in power governing skirt the law, rewrite the rules and have scant regard for the will and demands of the majority of Floridians.

Anyone through whom streams of compassion, decency and humanity flow, must fight back, fight hard, fight relentlessly and stand their ground in their struggle to restore lost humanity.

That means standing up to these bullies, tormenting them the way they delight in doing others. It also means that those fighting against DeSantis, domestic terrorists and the MAGA horde must squash their differences and coalesce around shared values and goals.

It means using every instrument in the toolbox – voting, the courts, organizing, protests, counter-protests, fundraising and new and innovative strategies to crush these reprobates.

Stop ceding elections to Republicans

To counter this burgeoning right wing wave, allies of those who’re being targeted and singled out need to build broad-based coalitions across the left, far-left and moderate constituencies; organize; raise lots of money; and stop ceding elections to Republicans.

That will be no easy task because for at least a decade, the GOP has tried to mute the voices of Florida citizens using radical redistricting, voter suppression and election and voter subversion.

In spite of the suppression of dissent and manipulation of the state’s electoral mechanisms, opponents of DeSantis and what remains of the Republican Party are standing up to DeSantis and his allies, speaking out or opting to leave the state.

What’s animating DeSantis, allies and supporters is fear that their way of life is eroding. They feel their power slipping away because of the social, economic and educational gains made by African Americans, a changing landscape where liberated women who no longer need permission from men to live their lives and perhaps most importantly, the threat of rising numbers of Black and brown people and the corresponding decline of the majority white population nationally.

The Browning of America translates to the significant diminution of white power, influence and dominance and those who will be most affected, led by the GOP, are fighting back furiously – even with violence – to blunt the prediction.

In recent days, a new battle is heating up in the Florida Legislature where the House just approved a bill that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work more than 30 hours a week, the same hours as adults. The measure is merely reflective of other Republican-led state legislatures which have introduced or passed laws that roll back child labor laws in industries as varied as meat packing plants, automobile factories and construction sites.

A 2023 NPR story notes that in 11 states, including Arkansas, Ohio, Iowa and Missouri, laws now on the books would “allow companies to hire children without work permits and allow children to work longer hours under more dangerous conditions …”

Republicans are cementing these changes into law even as several federal and news investigations revealed that thousands of children and teenagers employed in construction, manufacturing and meatpacking plants are being exploited, hurt and killed on the job.

The US Department of Labor data show 5,792 minors working in illegal conditions nationally in FY 2023, compared to 3,876 in FY 2022.

Immigrant children

Labor unions, child advocates and other critics are angered by the proposals and laws being considered by the legislature driven by the belief that Republicans – who are almost universally anti-labor – are passing these laws at the behest of businesses and corporations and have little concern for the health and safety of children and teenagers.

Many opposed to these new measures have been trying unsuccessfully to stave off what they say is a return to the days when children worked long hours on dangerous jobs for low pay and few protections.

In Florida’s case in particular, critics say, Florida Republicans are reacting to a labor shortage crisis created and exacerbated by DeSantis and the GOP legislative super-majority which passed onerous provisions targeting undocumented immigrants last summer.

Immigrant rights advocates and farmworkers have also expressed concerns about theirs and other immigrant children working in the fields instead of focusing on their education because of the bill.

“Our children are not merely small adults ready to bear the burdens of life toils; they are dreamers, thinkers and the very embodiment of our state’s future promise. At every corner of our state children are finding their passions, honing their skills, and learning the values that will define their character,” said Orange County Democratic Rep. LaVon Bracy Davis, speaking in the state House. “They are deeply engaged in educational pursuits and extracurricular activities that spark joy and ignite flames of lifelong interest. To place the weight of labor upon their shoulders is to extinguish these flames, to snuff out the spark before they can ever truly catch fire.”

The wrath generated by what the legislature’s doing makes it clear that lawmakers won’t have a free hand to do as business interests and corporations demand.

But those working in the interest of Florida’s children know they have a Sisyphean task ahead of them because DeSantis and his Republican cronies have so thoroughly rigged the system.

But they will continue to fight for children’s rights because our futures – as well as theirs – depend on it.

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