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Shock videos of Fla. handcuffing Black voters show true stakes of ‘22 election

Those infuriating videos of Black people arrested by Ron DeSantis' Orwellian voting police force is proof that our liberty is on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Robert Simpson, a Pahokee resident charged with voter fraud, outside of his home on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022, in Pahokee, Florida.
Robert Simpson, a Pahokee resident charged with voter fraud, outside of his home on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022, in Pahokee, Florida.Read moreAlie Skowronski / MCT

Terrified teenagers on street corners in downtown Birmingham, forced against brick walls by the painful force of a water cannon or recoiling from biting police dogs. A state trooper beating down a young, kneeling John Lewis on the far side of Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, as mounted officers begin a brutal charge. A Greyhound bus engulfed fully in flames outside Anniston, Ala. — a symbol of white rage against integrated Freedom Rides.

Imagery has already been the lens though which we’ve viewed America’s never-ending struggle for civil and human rights. For me and my peers who grew up in the baby-boom era, in the shadow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1960s’ end of legal segregation and the wholesale denial of Black voting, there was a subtext to those grainy pictures or film clips in black-and-white: that this was history, that we had overcome the time of blatant suppression.

That’s why the body-cam videos released out of Florida this week — showing the utter shock and confusion of citizens, predominantly Black and also mostly Democratic, handcuffed by cops and dragged off to jail over alleged voting crimes under an Orwellian squad created by Florida’s ambitious and authoritarian governor Ron DeSantis — are so shocking to watch.

These images aren’t blurry newsreels from over a half-century ago. This police roundup of the unsuspecting suspects — meant to send a chilling message that could keep thousands of legitimate, would-be voters at home next month, when DeSantis is running for reelection — is from 2022, in high-def living color. This is what today’s Jim Crow looks like, captured on film.

“What is wrong with this state, man?” a Tampa man named Tony Patterson said as cops led him off to a police car in handcuffs, in a video obtained through some dogged local journalism by the Tampa Bay Times. “Voter fraud? Y’all said anybody with a felony could vote, man.”

Patterson’s reaction speaks for a lot of folks who’ve watched these videos.

In an era when paranoia and disinformation over wildly exaggerated claims of voter fraud have become the beating heart of Donald Trump’s Republican Party, and with the White-House-gazing DeSantis seeking to become the new face of that movement, the Florida governor created a first-of-its kind Office of Election Crimes to target supposed unlawful voters.

What really happened this summer is that DeSantis’ new secret police force took advantage of a situation ripe for confusion. In 2018, Florida voters passed a referendum — to the chagrin of Republicans like DeSantis — that restored the vote to people convicted of felonies who’d served their time. But a provision that those convicted of murder or sex crimes needed to clear an additional hurdle to win back their voting rights was not well publicized — either to those affected, or to many government bureaucrats.

Nathan Hart, 49, previously convicted of a sex crime, was pretty sure he was ineligible to vote, but in March 2020, a functionary at the motor-vehicles office told him to register anyway. “He said, ‘Well, just fill out this form, and if they let you vote, then you can,’” Hart recounted to the Tampa Bay paper. “‘If they don’t, then you can’t.’” So Hart did vote that year, only to be shocked when police arrived with handcuffs this August, two years later.

The Office of Election Crimes has arrested 19 people so far, which has provided DeSantis with some great political theater to burnish his presidential ambitions with Fox-News-watching couch potatoes. “They are going to pay the price,” the GOP governor boasted in his televised news conference — failing to note that a felony voting fraud charge in Florida requires that a person “willfully” voted illegally, a notion that is rendered ridiculous by these body-cam videos.

But in targeting voters who in the past were convicted of the worst crimes of murder or sex offenses — even if, as their lawyers note, many have spent years rebuilding their lives, with stable jobs and families — DeSantis is counting on support from people who will having little sympathy for those arrested. Perhaps more importantly for the reelection of a governor who won by an ultra-slim margin in 2018, the actions of DeSantis “election integrity” secret police will surely intimidate voters with the slightest concern over their eligibility, or those fearful of law enforcement.

DeSantis’ motives become clear when one considers the separate and unequal treatment of four residents of The Villages — the massive, mostly white central Florida retirement mecca that skews Republican — who were charged with “willfully” committing voter fraud in casting illegal ballots. Not only were there not tough-guy declarations from DeSantis about “paying the price,” but at least two were allowed to turn themselves in rather than endure the abusive indignity of handcuffs.

» READ MORE: The barely hidden fascism of Ron DeSantis makes a Pa. pit stop on a race to ’24

What’s even more important here is that while DeSantis and Florida are again on the cutting edge of authoritarian awfulness, voter suppression is critical nationally to the Republicans’ 2022 midterm campaign that has brought them to the brink of reclaiming Congress. Although there’s been a recent wave of attention on the number of GOP candidates who’ve embraced the Big Lie of 2020 election fraud, and fears of efforts to not count all the votes in November, or in 2024 when possibly Trump or DeSantis is running for president, the old-school conservative notion of keeping folks from casting ballots in the first place has also been flourishing.

The Brennan Center at New York University, which monitors voting rights across America, has identified more than 20 states that have made it harder to vote in 2022. These are often undoing the recent flowering of conveniences like easier mail-in voting or drop boxes that created a surge in voter turnout in 2020, in a year when Democrats regained the White House and Senate.

And so Wisconsin banned drop boxes, after a ruling by that state’s Republican-dominated Supreme Court. Georgia — a key pickup state for the Dems two years ago — has added a tougher voter ID hurdle for absentee ballots and even made it a crime to distribute food or water on its notoriously long voting lines, courtesy of its GOP legislature and governor who signed the measure under a painting of a former slave plantation. A Texas county just eliminated the early voting station on the campus of Texas A&M University, one of many poll closures that impact young people or others who lean Democratic, like Black and brown folks.

Despite the mitigating effect of a Democratic governor, my own swing state of Pennsylvania has also been an epicenter in this fight, with county officials pushing to eliminate some of the drop boxes that made voting easier in 2020, and statewide Republicans fighting again and again in court for the ability to toss out ballots that clearly arrived in a timely and legal fashion, for the technical error of lacking a date.

The bottom line is this: Republicans are looking for any and every excuse for your almost surely legitimate vote not to be counted. And so they are invoking a myth of virtually-non-existent voter fraud to make rules aimed at making it much harder for perfectly eligible voters to cast their ballot — in the often successful hope that many won’t.

Republicans are looking for any and every excuse for your almost surely legitimate vote not to be counted.

The Democrats — for all their other flaws — at least want a democracy where it’s as easy as possible for all citizens to vote. The Republicans don’t, because at their core they’ve become a movement that craves power, not democracy. It’s that simple. The Florida images of people arrested by armed cops in their driveway and hauled off in handcuffs is the horrible place where a right-wing autocratic movement was headed all along — but also a harbinger of even darker days ahead.

You may have heard some TV commentator or even some random newspaper columnist declare that democracy is on the ballot in 2022. The Florida video clearly shows us what they mean, and yet the polls suggest that very few people are listening, or think that things like the right to vote rank high on their list of important issues. The best evidence right now is that Republican fortunes are rising, thanks to shameful TV fear tactics around crime and immigration as well as understandable anger over high prices.

But the Republican Party has no program to address inflation. It does have a program to handcuff Black folks who make an honest voting mistake.

“It’s terrifying how many Americans will choose literal fascism, female serfdom, climate collapse, and the reversal of everything from Social Security and Medicare to student loan relief because they think giving the GOP the power to investigate Hunter Biden will bring down gas prices,” the MSNBC host Joy Reid said this week, channeling my worst fears.

This is the paradox of those Florida voter arrest videos. While the goal was to scare and intimidate voters, this should instead be a wake-up call for the still-too-silent majority of Americans who care about real freedom, not the fake brand pushed by today’s GOP. We can write our own civil rights history just like John Lewis and MLK, in living color, and we can start on Nov. 8 simply by doing what Republicans fear most: casting a ballot.

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