You can’t ‘pivot away’ from sick stunts and cruelty

What DeSantis and Abbott are doing to migrants recalls the ‘Reverse Freedom Rides’ of the 1960s

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis should know that even back in 1962, stunts like his provoked horror, writes Curtis.   (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis should know that even back in 1962, stunts like his provoked horror, writes Curtis. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Posted September 22, 2022 at 6:00am

It’s called the “pivot.” It’s that moment when a politician who has been playing at the fringes for primary purposes tacks to the center, just in time for the general election, the better to appeal to independents and moderates who might be turned off by red-meat rhetoric.

A particularly clumsy execution of what should be a deft move could be observed after New Hampshire Republican Don Bolduc won his primary fight and the right to run for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Democrat Maggie Hassan.

After running as a true Trump devotee, swallower of the election lie that Donald Trump was denied the presidency because of fraud, and signing a letter saying Trump won, Bolduc had a come-to-truth conversion as soon as the primary votes were counted. “I’ve done a lot of research on this,” he said to explain his about-face. “The election was not stolen.”

Did he forget that videotape exists and social media is forever?

In politics, there are actually all kinds of pivots.

One that erases the lived experiences of human beings is underway right now, as buses and planes crisscross the United States, courtesy of governors competing to see who can score the most political points on the backs of brown people.

Who are these men, women and children? Where exactly are they from? Are many in the country legally, stuck in an immigration system that is overloaded, unwieldy and in need of reform? What’s going to happen to them now? Who is paying for this stunt?

Before all these questions are deeply explored, notice how quickly conversation about GOP Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida transporting asylum-seekers northward segued from the details about the people on those buses and planes to analysis of how these politicians’ cynical moves will play among voters.

Eventually, those details dangerously lose their power to shock, the names and faces blurring.

Consider how little has been reported on the fate of a 1-month-old baby dropped off in front of the Washington, D.C., residence of Vice President Kamala Harris, courtesy of Abbott.

Put yourself in the place of desperate parents trying to give your infant a better life; wonder what kind of despair and hope would lead to a trek into the unknown.

Oh, that’s right. In Donald Trump’s recent ominous and threatening Ohio speech, the one in which he labeled anyone opposing the MAGA movement as “thugs and tyrants” with “no idea of the sleeping giant they have awoken," he could not pass up the chance to refer to some immigrants as “murderers” and “rapists.”

The clear message was that “these” people are not like you, smoothing the way for a pivot from people to threats to political pawns, good only for the opportunity to “own the libs” and bank a few votes.

When taken to task for not giving social services in Martha’s Vineyard advance notice, the better to make preparations, DeSantis press person Jeremy Redfern embraced the oversight, tweeting, “Do the cartels that smuggle humans call Florida or Texas before illegal immigrants wash up on our shores or cross over the border? No.”

Anyone who invites a comparison to human-smuggling, lawbreaking coyotes might want to examine his life choices.

It’s not even an original tactic.

In the 1960s, when a wave of televised violence against African American citizens threatened to turn enough public opinion against the legally entrenched, rigidly enforced system that relegated Black people to less than second-class citizenship in many parts of the country, white supremacist Citizens’ Councils in Arkansas and in the South came up with what they thought was a clever way to expose the hypocrisy of white northerners.

They, too, were looking for a chance to pivot away from their own cruelty.

In what became known as “Reverse Freedom Rides,” mocking the Freedom Rides of civil rights activists who had traveled South, poor Black people, recruited with false promises of jobs, housing and opportunities, would be sent North. And what would be a better destination for those anxious to make a hateful point than tony Hyannis, Mass., near the holiday home of President John F. Kennedy?

As Amis Guthridge, an Arkansas lawyer and an organizer of the stunt said, as reported on NPR, “We’re going to find out if people like Ted Kennedy ... and the Kennedys, all of them, really do have an interest in the Negro people, really do have a love for the Negro.” Hyannis civil rights activist Margaret Moseley remembered it differently: “It was one of the most inhuman things I have ever seen.”

The people used as pawns made the best of it, though they suffered as anyone would when deceived, and sent away from family, friends and the only home they had known.

As DeSantis doubled down on his similar stunt, ordering up some human props from Texas, a state with a Mexican border Florida does not share, he should know that even back in 1962, reaction was horror that someone would move around people as though they were pieces on a chessboard. Then, as now, many welcomed the strangers.

A solution to a broken immigration system might be legislation. But that would require compromise and would remove a political cudgel for DeSantis and Abbott, the man he is trying mightily to outdo in this sick game.

Well now, here come the investigations and lawsuits. Are the actions of DeSantis right, or even legal?

On Monday, Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar of Texas announced an investigation into the details of the migrant flights from Texas to Massachusetts. And on Tuesday, civil rights lawyers filed a federal class-action lawsuit against DeSantis and others on behalf of a group of Venezuelan migrants, saying they were fraudulently lured by false promises to cross state lines, and in some cases, transported far away from scheduled hearings to examine their asylum claims.

Turns out they are people with rights, exercising their right to speak up.

The stunt might actually work among those frustrated with a broken system, especially among those who view politics as a game.

Still, it’s not so easy to pivot when the pawns demand justice.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.