'I feel unsafe here.' For Miami's democratic socialists, Trump's attacks feel personal.

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People listen as Ivanka Trump, President Donald Trump’s daughter, speaks during a campaign event for her father on October 27, 2020 in Miami, Florida. - Joe Raedle/Getty Images North America/TNS

MIAMI — Though she intends to vote for Joe Biden in the presidential election, Natasha Esteves has recently joined various Miami-area, pro-Trump Facebook groups. Since June, she has also been receiving text and email updates from the Trump reelection campaign, to the tune of more than 10 messages per day.

There’s a reason behind Esteves’ immersion in right-leaning digital spaces: She wants to stay up-to-date on the “anti-leftist, anti-socialist rhetoric” proliferating online.

“I live in Hialeah and I obviously see a lot of Trump flags ( … ) but right now a lot of the conversation spaces happen to be online,” Esteves said. “And in my participation in these conversations and in my monitoring of what’s being said online, I have realized how potentially violence-inciting some of the rhetoric against leftists has gotten.”

For Esteves, anti-socialism attacks are personal. Moved by the ongoing economic crisis and the “summer of racial unrest,” the 32-year-old recently became one of nearly 200 dues-paying members of the Miami-Dade chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the largest socialist organization in the United States. She now worries her politics have put a clear target on her back.

“I feel unsafe here,” she said. “It feels unsafe for me to be vocal about my views.”

Although it’s a term that means many things to many people, “democratic socialism” in the U.S. is generally understood to be a call for European-style social democracy. The goal, in other words, is a generous welfare state, and not a government-controlled economy (two concepts that are often conflated by critics).

ATTACKING SOCIALISM

In the months leading up to Nov. 3, the Trump campaign has doubled down on anti-socialism messaging to woo Latino voters in Miami-Dade and close the margins in the state’s most populous county. Earlier this month, the president’s team even launched a statewide “Fighters Against Socialism” bus tour, which concluded with a Marco Rubio event in Miami. Around that same time, tens of thousands of cars jammed into West Flagler Street for an event billed as an “anti-socialist” caravan.

The tenor of the criticism can be alienating, Esteves explained, because of the recurring notion that socialists are by definition anti-American.

After the Republican National Convention in August — where speaker after speaker, including Florida’s lieutenant governor, took turns blasting socialism — Esteves received an email from the Trump campaign linking to a post-RNC survey. One of the questions asked “What do you identify as? American or socialist?”

Also piling up in Esteves’ inbox are Trump fundraising emails with subject lines like “Socialist Nightmare vs American Dream” or “Patriots vs. Socialists.” Trump himself trotted out that rhetoric in an Oct. 20 ‘Fox & Friends’ appearance, when he likened his race against Biden to a choice between the “American dream” or a “socialist hellhole.”

“I feel like there’s no dissent here. That’s the sensation I have,” said Esteves. “If you are left of center all of a sudden you are not deserving to be an American. You are dismissed as an America-hater, and that is extremely marginalizing and scary.”

Albert Rodriguez, like Esteves, is also active in the local chapter of DSA.

As a Cuban-American born and raised in South Florida, Rodriguez says he’s come across anti-socialism rhetoric his “entire life growing up in Miami.” The difference in 2020, he explained, is that the volume of that rhetoric has been turned up, and not just in Miami but around the country.

“What I’ve noticed in this election is seeing it go nationwide,” he said. “It really feels like the national Republican party is pulling a lot from the Miami Republican red-baiting playbook, and it’s really disheartening to see.”

Miami DSA members worry that the stigmatization of socialists and leftists could lead to physical attacks, given Trump’s track record of inciting violence. In conversations with the Herald, many brought up the killings in Kenosha, Wisconsin, over the summer. Kyle Rittenhouse, a law enforcement enthusiast and a Trump supporter, was charged with shooting and killing two people at a protest — actions the president then seemed to justify.

“We can’t ignore the possibility that there are people out there who feel emboldened by the kind of violent rhetoric that Trump spews, and who are willing to take action on that,” Jose Dominguez, a Miami DSA member based in Brownsville, said. “It’s something that I’m extremely worried about.”

Brian Mejia, treasurer of the Miami DSA, agrees.

“An entire way of thinking is being eliminated from what’s allowable discussion,” he said. “I would consider that anti-democratic and frankly anti-American … It’s a chill on debate.”

GROUP HAS THEIR WORK CUT OUT FOR THEM

It’s a busy time for Miami DSA members. In addition to coordinating a recruitment drive, the group has recently been planning actions to shore up the United States Postal Service and discussing tactics to launch a Green New Deal campaign locally. Last month, DSA members also mobilized to make their voices heard in Miami-Dade budget hearings, where they called for shifting police dollars to social services. In collaboration with other progressive groups, they helped build a website that breaks down and analyzes the county’s nearly 1,000-page budget plan for 2021.

But Miami DSA members know they also have to set time aside — perhaps more so than other local DSA chapters — to engage community members in conversations about what their brand of socialism is, given the widespread ambivalence around the term that exists in many of South Florida’s Latin American diasporas.

“A lot of times we can’t even get into what work we do because we have to explain what we are even about,” Rodriguez said. “Many people when they hear that we are a socialist organization functioning in Miami, they take that as us automatically denying what happened in their countries. But we don’t. We denounce authoritarianism just as much as anyone else.”

Democratic socialists in the mold of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders say their belief in a more expansive social-welfare state and stringent regulation of the economy actually preserves individual freedom, instead of subverting it.

“We are the democratic socialists. Our whole idea is we want a more democratic society,” said Esteves. “It’s just that for us, economic justice is part of a democracy.”

Many members pull from the extensive experience they have talking about socialism with their own immigrant families.

“It’s extremely difficult to navigate. It’s a sensitive issue,” said Dominguez, a second-generation Nicaraguan immigrant who grew up in Little Havana. When talking about politics to family members like his father, who voted for Trump in 2016, Dominguez avoids wide-ranging ideological debates, and hones in instead on individual kitchen table issues.

“I mean, I don’t have healthcare. My siblings don’t have healthcare. Most of my friends don’t have healthcare. And my dad himself travels to Nicaragua to get medical procedures done there because it’s so expensive here,” said Dominguez, who noted that more Americans than not support a Medicare-for-all plan. “These are things he understands, it’s not about being a socialist or not. So that’s the way I like to go about it. Talking about issues and solutions to those issues.”

To help people understand the values and conceptual framework behind Miami DSA’s work, the group held a three-part “Foundations of Socialism” orientation course on Zoom during September and October.

Class topics ranged from “Class Centrality and Class Struggle” to “The Role of the State in a Capitalist Society” and “Socialism vs. Progressivism.”

“The point is to really have us all speak the same language,” said Mejia. “We’re trying to get a more theory-based understanding of what (socialism) means so that we can have a better way to articulate our arguments.”

The group has their work cut out for them. According to Mejia, the Miami DSA has in the past gotten their offers to work with local progressive coalitions rebuffed, because of the word “socialist” in the group’s name. Locally, democratic socialists have to frequently counter the notion that socialism is inexorably linked to dictatorial regimes, given many immigrant communities’ first-hand experiences and trauma in their home countries.

“We have that baggage (in Miami),” said Mejia, whose family is Colombian. “And it makes things a little more difficult but it’s all the more worthwhile. It will take time, it will take more political education and so we are going to keep hosting forums like these and foundations of socialism courses.”

ECONOMIC INEQUALITY IN MIAMI

Common among Miami DSA members is the belief that — despite the adverse emotional reaction the socialism label triggers — South Florida’s economic stratification should make more people receptive to a socialist message anchored on working-class solidarity than is currently the case.

Greater Miami — where 30 resident billionaires live alongside widespread poverty and a shrinking middle class — is the second-most unequal metro in the country, trailing only New York. By a standard measure of economic inequality, the Gini coefficient, the gap between the haves and have-nots in Miami-Dade appears to be on par with that of countries like Colombia and Panama.

At fault is the region’s outsized dependence on poorly paid service jobs. Almost half of the county’s workers labor in tourism, retail and food service, earning an average of $26,532 per year. The median annual wage for a worker in Miami-Dade is $31,702 — the third lowest in the country, according to a recent FIU report.

“There is great potential here (because) we see what extreme wealth inequality looks like,” said Michele Alonso, a DSA member based in Miami Beach. “We see multimillion-dollar condos, we see Lamborghinis and Bentleys riding around. At the same time, I’m on this little island where many people are servers and bartenders, and they’re struggling to get by. So having that contrast so visible I think creates an opportunity to explain how the capitalist system contributes to that.”

The aim of environmental justice policies loudly championed by democratic socialists, including the Green New Deal, should also feel particularly relevant to Miamians, DSA members say.

“We obviously live in a coastal city and keeping in mind that climate change is real, you would think that there would be such an immense amount of support behind ideas such as the Green New Deal, right? Because eventually Miami is going to be underwater,” said Dominguez.

Still, membership at the Miami chapter of DSA lags behind that of other chapters in large metro areas — for comparison, the New York City chapter has around 7,000 members, making it more than 30 times bigger than Miami’s.

“This city absolutely should be” more receptive to DSA’s message, Rodriguez said. “And as to why it’s not, well, propaganda is a hell of a drug.”

There are other factors at play.

“Miami does provide an interesting landscape for class-based organizing, but life is intersectional,” Esteves said. “We have language barriers, or ethnic and national identities that sometimes speak louder. But the possibility is there.”

‘THESE ARE RADICALIZING TIMES’

Despite the toxicity of the anti-socialism rhetoric set loose by the presidential election, Miami DSA members view the other defining development of 2020 — the coronavirus pandemic — as an opportunity to pitch a broader tent in a time of crisis.

In their eyes, the public health emergency and ensuing economic collapse have set the stage for a re-energized socialist movement.

More than seven months after the outbreak of the new coronavirus, over 180,000 workers remain unemployed in Miami-Dade. With a return to pre-pandemic levels of activity for the tourism industry still years away, thousands of jobless hospitality workers are finding themselves without healthcare as their benefits run out. Over the summer, with local demand exploding for both food stamps and food bank-groceries, the Miami metro area ranked first nationwide for food insecurity.

“The pandemic has really highlighted a lot of the things that have been apparent to us for a long time, the fact that we as a society have not been built to give people the basic things they need to survive,” said Rodriguez. “What we are trying to capitalize on is the fact that this crisis is making the necessity of what we are talking about more apparent to more people.”

At the national level, a surge in interest has already materialized, with DSA membership now tallying 75,000, after picking up around 20,000 new members since March. In May, a DSA spokesperson told the Atlantic that the organization hadn’t seen numbers like this since the 2018 election of New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“These are radicalizing times,” said Mejia. “People are looking outside of the government to understand why things are happening, why the system is so broken. They are more curious and exploring anti-capitalist politics. And so we are trying to capture that energy.”

“With time and some steady activity, we can make a change and expand what’s politically possible here.”

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