Florida voters are preparing to vote on Amendment 4, a measure that would restore voting rights to 1.4 million people with nonviolent felonies who have fully completed their sentences. One in five African Americans in Florida and 10 percent of the state’s adult population are ineligible to vote because of a criminal record. Across the United States, more than 6.1 million people with felony convictions are not eligible to vote. Florida is one of just four states that bar them from voting for life. In October, Amy Goodman traveled to Melbourne, Florida, and spoke with Desmond Meade, the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, who is a formerly homeless returning citizen who is leading the fight to re-enfranchise people with felony convictions in Florida.
AMY GOODMAN: We finally turn to Florida, where voters are preparing to vote on Amendment 4, a measure that would restore voting rights to 1.4 million people with nonviolent felonies who have completed their sentences or never served time in jail. One of five African Americans in Florida, 10 percent of the state’s adult population are ineligible to vote in Florida because of a criminal record. Across the U.S., more than 6 million people with felony convictions are not eligible to vote. Florida is one of just four states that bar ex-felons from voting for life.
Well, just a few weeks ago, I traveled to Melbourne, Florida, and interviewed Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, who’s leading the fight to re-enfranchise people with felony convictions in Florida. He himself is, what he calls himself, a returning citizen. He is still disenfranchised. Desmond and I were in conversation with Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. I asked Meade to talk about his own story.
DESMOND MEADE: Back in August of 2005, I was in South Florida, and I found myself, on a hot and humid day, standing in front of railroad tracks, waiting on a train to come so I can jump in front of it. That day that I stood there, I was a broken man. I was homeless. I was addicted to drugs, recently released from prison, and I didn’t have any hope. I didn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. And I waited for that train. And the only thing I could think about, Amy, was how much pain I was going to feel when that train hit me. And even the thought of the pain I would have to endure was not enough to make me move, and I stood there waiting and waiting.
And eventually, I mean, the train never came, and eventually I had to cross those tracks. And I did. And two blocks further was a place that I was able to go and get admitted into a drug treatment program. And so, it was a 4-month program. And after I completed the program, I moved into a homeless shelter in downtown Miami. And while living at the homeless shelter, I decided to go to school, because I just wanted to do something to stop that vicious cycle of drug abuse. You know, when you’re on it, you stop, your life starts to improve, and then something happens to make you relapse, and then you’re right back down there again. And, you know, I figured that if I can get a little education, maybe that would raise my level of self-esteem.
And part of my recovery program was about giving back, service. You know, how do we make our communities a better place? And I had committed to that while I was in treatment. And with the combination of giving back, community service, and going to school, I had a very prosperous career in education, going to school, and eventually I got accepted into law school. And in May of 2014, I graduated with a law degree from FIU College of Law.
Now you can come with the boos, because my story does not have a happy ending, because I live in Florida, and I can’t even practice law. Booo!
DESMOND MEADE: And so, yes, you know, when I went—and I could address this right now. When I decided to go to law school, I knew at that time that Florida was not going to allow me to practice law. But I still went, because when I was in treatment, I made a commitment. I made a commitment because I discovered a new life. And my commitment was that every day that I woke up, that I needed to do something to make me a better person, to make my community a better place to live. Every day I woke up, I woke up fighting for each and every one of you. I don’t even know you, and I was fighting for you every day I woke up, because I knew that whatever it was that I did, I wanted to make my community, I wanted to make my state and my country a better place for everyone to live. And that’s what I committed to. And that’s what sustained me throughout this. And so, I knew that by going to law school, that the more knowledge I had of the laws that govern every facet of our lives, the better I’ll be able to maneuver, you know, in this world of activism. And that’s what I did. That’s what I did. And that was, you know, knowing that I may never practice law, but at that moment I knew that that was the right way to go. And it’s led me here.
AMY GOODMAN: You may never practice law because you had served time in jail.
DESMOND MEADE: Because I had served—because I was—not because I served time in jail. Remember, I said, over 75 percent of people convicted of felonies each year do not go to prison. They don’t. And so, that is something that, you know, I did. I went to prison. I was bad, you know. But because—not because I went to prison, but because I was convicted of a felony, of a felony.
So, how many of you all in the audience ever had those like balloons that says “Happy Birthday” or “Get well soon” or “Congratulation, graduate”? Raise your hand if you have. Raise it high in the air. How many of you all ever went to a—keep it raised, keep it raised. How many of you all ever went to a memorial, you know, where you have the white balloons and you release them into the air? Raise your hand. If you’ve ever released a balloon in the air, raise your hand. All of you all would be felons in the state of Florida, if you were caught by law enforcement, and you would not be able to vote for the rest of your life.
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
DESMOND MEADE: Because it is a third-degree felony.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m a New Yorker. I’m a New Yorker.
DESMOND MEADE: It’s a third-degree felony to release multiple helium-filled balloons in the air. If you’ve ever—if you’ve ever—you’re walking to class, and there’s construction going on.
AMY GOODMAN: Wait, wait, wait. We have—since we have cameras here that are videoing this, we have to get each face of each person who’s released a balloon.
DESMOND MEADE: Yes, right? No, don’t do that. Don’t do that. Don’t do that. But even when you’re walking to work or you’re walking to a class or whatever, and you happen to take a shortcut, and it may allow you to cross a construction site, trespassing on a construction site is a third-degree felony, and you could lose your rights for life.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, who’s leading the fight to re-enfranchise people with felony convictions in Florida. It’s called Amendment 4. It will be the largest re-enfranchisement—or, the largest enfranchisement of Americans since women got the right to vote. And it’s happening in Florida today, if it passes.
Special thanks to Charina Nadura, Denis Moynihan, Phil Harris and Tey Astudillo.
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