(RNS) — On Friday (Sept. 15) in Florida’s capital, a phalanx of college students ventured to the Statehouse to deliver a letter that, in part, protests the murder of three Black patrons by a white gunman last month at a Dollar General store in Jacksonville.
The students are members of the local chapter of March for Our Lives, a gun-violence prevention group co-founded by David Hogg, a survivor of the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, near Miami. Last year, students from March for Our Lives stood on the same Statehouse steps in Tallahassee and recalled the names of victims of a litany of recent school shootings as part of a national wave of demonstrations.
But at Friday’s demonstration, the start of two days of protest, the students allied with a coalition of faith-based organizations such as Repairers of the Breach and the Florida Council of Churches to demand state leaders do more to address not only gun violence, but also voting rights, racism, poverty, LGBTQ discrimination, and other causes.
“Its not enough to talk about how somebody gets a gun like the shooter at my high school, said Hogg at a rally at the First Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee before the march. “We need to talk about how the shooter at my high school had a history of racism and racist comments, of antisemitism and Islamophobia.”
The letter the groups delivered — a “cease and desist” letter addressed to Gov. Ron DeSantis and members of the state Legislature — is part of an apparent national strategy devised by organizations associated with the Rev. William Barber, a Disciples of Christ minister and prominent anti-poverty activist. It bears the hallmarks of the Poor People’s Campaign, an effort Barber co-chairs, which has long used faith-based rallies and protests to advocate for issues they see as “interlocking,” such as climate change, voting rights, racial justice, and the plight of the poor.
In mid-August, Repairers of the Breach, founded by Barber, and the Poor People’s Campaign helped organize a cease and desist letter addressed to members of the North Carolina State Legislature. The letter, which organizers said was released to correspond with the 58th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, denounced efforts to pass what they called “monster voter suppression bills.”
“Instead of addressing the crises of poverty and low wages, lack of healthcare, underfunded public education, voter suppression, and environmental collapse you have chosen to use ‘culture wars’ that engender hate to camouflage and distract from your true agenda,” the letter to North Carolina legislators read.
The Florida letter adds, “As religious and moral leaders, along with the thousands who sign this letter, we are publicly calling on you to cease and desist or resign.”
Friday’s letter also expressed frustration with legislation passed in Florida targeting LGBTQ people, as well as new election laws that have triggered lawsuits arguing that the statutes amount to voter suppression.
“You introduced nine voter restriction bills between 2020 and 2023 and 10 anti-LGBTQ+ laws in 2023 alone,” the letter reads. “Four of the voter restriction bills passed, while five of the anti-LGBTQ laws passed.”
Barber’s organizations have long zeroed in on voting rights, once staging a peaceful demonstration in 2021 where Barber, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and many others were arrested in Washington, D.C., while calling on U.S. senators to abolish the filibuster in order to pass voting rights legislation.
But as the United States’ widening political divisions are increasingly worked out in state legislatures, activist organizations are teaming up to apply pressure at the state and even local levels, where laws involving guns, abortion, voting, and other issues are often hashed out.
“Just as failed governors and politicians have done in the past, Gov. DeSantis’s use of ‘culture wars’ and divisive rhetoric is an effort to deflect and distract the public from real issues of the common good, instead of focusing on passing laws that lift Florida’s 9.5 million poor and low wealth people out of poverty,” Barber said in a press release.
“It’s time to take back the mic so truth and love and justice ring loud, not lies and division and hate. We need to get serious, mobilize, and speak out so division and hate do not have the last say in this democracy, in this moment of history.”
This story is presented as part of the Democracy Day journalism collaborative, a nationwide effort to shine a light on the threats and opportunities facing American democracy. Read more at usdemocracyday.org.