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‘You don’t want this smoke’: Philly NAACP protests Union League honor for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

Hours before Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was set to be honored at the Union League in Philadelphia, demonstrators decried the award, calling it a “slap in the face” to Black and brown people.

Protesters gathered outside of the Union League condemning their decision to award their Union League Gold Medal to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday.
Protesters gathered outside of the Union League condemning their decision to award their Union League Gold Medal to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday.Read moreHeather Khalifa / Staff Photographer

Hours before Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was set to be honored at the Union League in Philadelphia, demonstrators decried the award, calling it a “slap in the face” to Black and brown people.

DeSantis received the historic club’s highest honor — a gold medal first awarded to President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 — during a Tuesday evening reception and program.

The city’s NAACP chapter at an afternoon protest had called on the private club to cancel the event, an unlikely outcome because the Union League had already rebuffed a similar request from more than 100 dues-paying members.

Demonstrators chanted “shame” and “racist” at anyone entering or leaving the club’s Sansom Street doors late Tuesday afternoon. Most ignored the protesters, but a few exchanged words and insults.

There was also a chant — “Sexist, racist, antigay, Ron DeSantis, go away” — as several protesters held signs decrying Florida’s so-called Don’t Say Gay legislation, signed into law last year by DeSantis, that prohibits instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.

Earlier, protesters packed the sidewalk in front of the club for nearly an hour. The Rev. Alyn E. Waller, senior pastor at Enon Tabernacle Church, called on Union League members to resign from the club.

“If you want to hold on to a membership with them and if you want to do business with them, that is going to cause a problem with us,” Waller said. “And you need to understand, don’t come for us unless we call for you. Because you don’t want this smoke.”

Before the protest, the NAACP chapter had noted Florida’s decision Friday to reject an advanced African American studies course proposed for the state’s schools, a decision DeSantis stood by Monday while claiming the course amounted to “indoctrination.”

“The fact that Gov. DeSantis has denied Black and brown people their own history is an affront to their culture,” said the Rev. Robert Collier, the president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity. “This smells like Jim Crow 2023.”

City Councilmember Sharon Vaughn said she is introducing a resolution in Council on Thursday to denounce the Union League.

“We need to let them know that we will not stand for this nonsense,” she said. “And if you come in Philadelphia and act crazy, we will meet you with the same energy.”

City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, who represents the district where the club is located, declared that “African American history is American history,” repeating that line twice for a cheering crowd.

Catherine Hicks, president of the city’s NAACP chapter, said the protest organizers tried to discuss the event with Union League leaders.

“We received silence,” Hicks said.

There’s a good chance DeSantis, a likely 2024 Republican presidential contender known for his rhetorical skirmishes with critics, will see as much value in being reviled as in being reveled.

The NAACP, in a news release Tuesday, repeated the concerns first laid out in an October letter from those club members about DeSantis. Those claims include:

  1. DeSantis “does not support the peaceful transfer of presidential power” and is “equivocal about an armed insurrection against the United States” on Jan. 6, 2021.

  2. DeSantis supports political candidates “who spread the lie” that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen.”

  3. DeSantis has “trampled on the 1st Amendment” by supporting “the banning of books from libraries and schools and the restriction of what school teachers can say and teach.”

The Pennsylvania Democratic Party also decried DeSantis and what it called his “extreme agenda,” including an abortion ban after 15 weeks he signed into law in Florida last year that includes no exceptions in cases of rape or incest.

The DeSantis event, which first sparked disunity in the Union League in September, was originally scheduled for Oct. 13 but was postponed after Hurricane Ian hit Florida.

The club was founded during the Civil War in 1862 to support Lincoln and his policies. It describes the gold medal as something “to be conferred on men who were regarded as deserving well of their country.”

The Union League has steadfastly refused to discuss in public the DeSantis event or the backlash it created within the club. The event, with tickets costing $160, was sold out.

The Union League told members last week that electronic devices must be turned off during the DeSantis event and that no photography or video recording was allowed. Members were also not allowed to ask DeSantis for his autograph.

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