The struggle is in response to a high-handed executive order by Gov. John Ellis Bush prohibiting "racial or gender set-asides, preferences or quotas" in government hiring and contracting, or in admissions to state universities.
It was a bad week for the Bush family, between George Bush's defeat in the New Hampshire primaries and his brother being caught by surprise at the militant and widespread opposition to his attempt to scuttle a hard-won gain.
According to the Tallahassee Democrat, 2,000 students marched from Florida A&M University to the Capitol to defend affirmative action February 8. Carrying signs that read, "No One Florida"—in opposition to the cynically named Bush proposal—and "The Bush Wack," the students organized what the paper called "the most enthusiastic demonstration against One Florida to date."
In Miami, more than 4,000 people rallied downtown February 3 in a lively and confident action. The crowd transformed a public hearing into a rally by defenders of affirmative action. They rejected pleas from legislators to keep it a formal hearing, demanding that the floor microphones be put where everyone could see them, insisting that they be allowed to address the crowd rather than the legislators, and ignoring the three-minute speaking time limit.
Pro–affirmative action organizers from the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees; the NAACP; and Jobs with Justice led chants, including, "We're not going back!"
Union T-shirts and jackets were evident from the Teamsters, International Longshoremen's Association, Communication Workers of America, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Participation by workers was noticeable, along with businessmen and students.
The overwhelming majority of the Miami protesters were Black. Many of the students, workers, and others were women. There was significant participation by Haitians as well.
The protesters came to testify and participate in the hearing, which had been shifted at the last minute to the 1,700-seat Gusman Theater for the Performing Arts from the small Miami-Dade county council chambers. Some came as part of organized groups, but the majority showed up on their own or with friends and family members.
People began lining up outside the theater two hours before the hearing started, and there was a line of people waiting to get in all day, as people were able to come down to the hearing after work. The hearing ended at 9:00 p.m., seven hours after it began. The theater was full all day.
More than 400 people signed up to speak, but only 124 got a chance.
One young Black man testified, "I want to speak for my generation. The government of America doesn't give us a chance. How many Black men and women died for these rights and you want to take them away." The chair cut off the microphone but he got a standing ovation.
Protesters cheered and jumped to their feet when speakers took a stand against the One Florida Plan. While a few speakers expressed support for the governor's action, a wide range of views were expressed on how to defend affirmative action. Some said vote and send e-mail letters to the governor. Some called for a boycott of Disneyland.
Calls for street action got a tremendous response. When one speaker said, "Don't think what we say here will make a difference," a voice from the audience called out, "We'll march on Tallahassee. We'll hold the largest protest the state has ever seen." Throughout the hearing calls to march on Tallahassee rang out.
When Gov. Bush walked into the theater he was met by a chorus of boos. Bush claims his personal commitment is to maintain "diversity" in hiring and in education. He has proposed changing state university entrance requirements to guarantee admission to the top 20 percent of every graduating class in every public high school across the state. Implementation of this plan would require legislative funding.
Many of the people who testified prefaced their remarks by saying that they were products of affirmative action. When one speaker asked those who did not graduate in the top 20 percent of their high school class to stand, the majority of the audience stood up and cheered.
Some women's organizations participated, notably professional organizations.
The Miami hearing was one of three legislative hearings conceded by the governor after protests spotlighted the unilateral character of the November 9 edicts Bush calls his "One Florida Initiative." Two state senators who are Black staged a sit-in outside the governor's office in mid-January demanding more public input, an action which got support, especially from students at Florida A&M. How much opposition the governor faces, and from whom, is beginning to become more obvious.
Ward Connerly, a businessman who is leading a national campaign against affirmative action, has collected enough signatures to put a referendum on the November ballot which would amend the Florida constitution along the lines of the successful anti-affirmative action votes in California and Washington State.
Bush claims his executive orders are an attempt to save "diversity" in the face of the referendum's supposedly certain victory. At the same time as his orders ban quotas, preferences, and set-asides, they include language committing the governor to "diversity." Connerly ran up against student protests when he spoke at a local campus the night before the Miami hearing.
The Socialist Workers candidate for mayor of Miami-Dade county, Rollande Girard, attended the hearing. "This protest tonight confirms that the willingness to fight evidenced by the King Day marchers in Colombia South Carolina against the racist Confederate flag and the struggle of dockworkers in Charleston can also be found in South Florida.
"Let's make the March 7 rally in Tallahassee a massive showing of working-class solidarity," she said. "Quotas in hiring and in school admissions are necessary to eliminate the racist discrimination that permeates all aspects of U.S. society today. Affirmative action helps unify the working class in the face of attacks from the bosses and their government."
A meeting at the UNITE headquarters was organized by the NAACP to plan local participation in the March 7 protest, which drew representation from many unions. Already, 10 buses have been filled and 20 more are reserved. A statewide hot line has been set up in Tallahassee to get out information. For more information call (850) 877-0307, or view the web site at www.marchontallahassee.com.
Eric Simpson is a member of UNITE Local 415.
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