In 2019, Time magazine named Desmond Meade one of its 100 most influential people after he helped secure the passage of Florida’s Amendment 4, the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative, which granted 1.4 million formerly incarcerated Floridians the right to vote. It was the largest expansion of the franchise since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
But the voting rights fight never ended for Meade. In August 2022, the state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, announced that Florida’s Office of Statewide Prosecution had arrested 20 people with prior felony convictions for “knowingly” engaging in voter fraud during the 2020 election. Police body-camera footage of several of those arrests was released in October, leading to public outrage at the sight of bewildered defendants in handcuffs who had cast ballots in 2020 believing that they were legally registered to vote as a result of Amendment 4.
Meade is president and executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, an organization that advocates on behalf of the formerly incarcerated—“returning citizens,” as he calls them. Concerned about the chilling effect of the August arrests, the coalition set up a legal defense fund to assist the defendants. I recently spoke with Meade how the state’s “red wave” in the this year’s midterms has affected the movement for voting rights in Florida.
And it eventually led me to the day in August 2005 when I found myself standing alongside some railroad tracks waiting for a train to come so that I could jump in front of it. That was my lowest moment. I was homeless. I was recently released from prison, hooked on crack cocaine. The only things I owned were the clothes on my back. As I stood there, I thought about being a disappointment to my family, to myself, to my colleagues and friends, but mostly I was contemplating what I was going to feel when the train crushed my body—whether I was going to die instantly or suffer agonizing pain. Fortunately, a train didn’t come.
I ended up crossing those railroad tracks and checking myself into drug treatment. I got admitted into an in-house program, which was only a couple of blocks away from the tracks. After completing that, I moved into a homeless shelter. It wasn’t my first time going there, just like it wasn’t my first time going through drug treatment, but this time was different.
While I was living in the shelter, I decided to go back to school to pursue some type of education to prevent myself from relapsing. Relapse is a term in recovery for when you stop using drugs or alcohol, your life starts improving, and then something happens that makes you pick up a drink or a drug. And the next thing you know, you’re in a worse place than where you were the last time. I wanted to break that cycle, and the only idea I could come up with was to go to school. So that’s what I did.
I also discovered that being of service to others and giving back was the key to recovery. So it was the combination of going to school and being engaged in community service that propelled me through those years. I ended up graduating with several degrees, and eventually, in May 2013, getting accepted into law school. In May 2014, I graduated with a Juris Doctor from Florida International University College of Law. I then became president of the organization that I run now, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.
You asked who Desmond is, and I think Desmond is a man who as a little kid just wanted to be loved by his brothers and sisters. I was willing to do anything and everything to get acceptance and love from my family. And if I couldn’t get it from my family, I would try to get it from my friends. I was searching for love. That little four-letter word is the most powerful word in the universe. I believe that each and every one of us, regardless of the hue of our skin, has a desire to be loved and to love. However, there are so many external forces that can suffocate that and promote negative things within us such as hate, fear, discrimination, and prejudice. I believe that my mission is to get us back to a more natural state. I may seem a little like Don Quixote, but I do believe that it’s possible.
KH: When I think about where you’ve been, especially when you were standing next to those tracks, in comparison to where you are today, all I can say is “Look at you now!”
DM: I used to tell folks that if somebody would have approached me when I was at those railroad tracks and begged me not to jump in front of a train—if they had told me, “Listen, Desmond, if you don’t do it, you’re going to lead the biggest movement to restore voting rights to like 1.4 million people; you’re going to sit on boards with mayors and commissioners and attorney generals and judges; you’re going to meet the president of the United States; you’re going to be one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people; you’re going to be named a MacArthur Fellow,” I would probably have put them in a chokehold or something. They would have had to tell me where they got that good dope they were smoking, because they would have had to be on some good dope to think that a person who was hooked on crack and suicidal and in and out of jail and prison could accomplish those kinds of things. That was impossible—or so I would have thought.
KH: What do you see as the pressing issues that are currently facing returning citizens both in Florida and in the rest of the nation?
DM: That term “returning citizens” speaks to one of the pressing issues. In 2011 and 2012, when I was doing some things with the organization, we were trying to hold rallies. Back then, of course, we were referred to as ex-felons. That was the terminology. It so happened that someone sent me some research that had been done at one of the leading doctoral schools around criminology. I think it was titled “Labeling.” What it said made so much sense. When you call someone an ex-felon, an ex-con, you actually increase the likelihood that they will commit another offense. It reminds me of the saying, “If you call a child stupid, they will grow up believing that they’re stupid.” Words have power.
So we knew that we didn’t want to use that terminology anymore, but we were struggling to find some way to identify people like me. We wanted to use a term that had positive connotations, so we came up with “returning citizen.” It meant that we were citizens of our community, of our state, of the country—that we were sent away, we were in prison, but now we were returning to our community, wanting to be part of society.
A couple of years later, my wife pointed out that there were folks in the nation’s capital who had already coined the phrase “returning citizens.” So somebody started using it while we were still thinking about it, but we came up with it independently. Today, there is a lot of discussion about how we identify ourselves. But at the end of the day, we are really just people. We don’t call someone who lied a “former liar” or an “ex-liar.” We don’t call someone who has cheated an “ex-cheater.” We’re just people.
To get back to the challenge of this narrative, the problem was that because we were convicts or felons, there was less sympathy about what was being done to us. Solitary confinement—putting people in conditions that aren’t even fit for animals—did not outrage the public, because we were criminals. They didn’t see us as someone’s father, sister, or brother. That is important, because when you talk about reform, why would anyone want to give me voting rights when they’re looking at me as an animal or someone who has harmed the community? They see me as some kind of predator, someone who is not worthy of being treated with dignity and respect. That’s why I shouldn’t have a TV in jail. That’s why incarcerated women shouldn’t have sanitary napkins. It’s OK for them to be shackled or raped in prison when they’re viewed as the “other.” But when they’re seen as human beings first—that’s when we get the moral outrage. And that is the biggest struggle.
I believe that if I can get people to love the person they most despise, then they are capable of loving everyone. If I can get society to look at an incarcerated person as a human being first, they’ll look at an immigrant as a human being first, they’ll look at a transgendered person as a human being first, they’ll look at someone who isn’t the same color as them as a human being first. And the best subject to start with is people who have been impacted by the criminal justice system, because it’s so easy to hate us and not care about what happens to us.
KH: In America today, “ex-felon” is like a scarlet letter. Even though you’ve served your time, the scarlet letter of “ex-felon” is something that you’re always forced to wear. Even a nonviolent crime stays with you for the rest of your life. As you said, working to change that narrative is the most profound thing we can do.
DM: There has been so much emphasis over the years on whether the crime a person committed was violent or nonviolent. From what I’ve seen, this distinction is just another tactic for continuing the narrative. You have these policies that say it’s OK to let the nonviolent people vote and get jobs, but not the violent ones. If I’m more scared of somebody who could be violent, then it makes more sense to me to create opportunities for that person and not shut them off. Because if a person with a more serious offense can’t get a job, can’t get housing, can’t get an education, what do you think they’re going to do? If you made a mistake in your life, if you served your time and you’re now coming back to your community, then you should be given every opportunity to successfully reintegrate. Humanizing people erases that distinction between violent and nonviolent.
KH: Have the midterm election results made you feel more hopeful?
DM: Yes, of course. But our work at the Rights Restoration Coalition is not dictated by the results of an election. It’s not dictated by which party wins or doesn’t win. Republicans don’t have a monopoly on suppression. They don’t have a monopoly on imposing destructive policies on people. When we talk about the 1994 Crime Bill and the massive influx of African Americans into the criminal justice system, that was legislation pushed by Democrats.
KH: To circle back to what you said about centering love and how we need to love the people who despise us, can you talk about how that belief has transformed you and affected the work you do for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition?
DM: Being able to love those who despise us gives us power. Time and time again, I’ve seen that proximity can bring about transformation. It’s hard to hate someone once you’ve actually met them in person or had a relationship with them. I’ve seen people who used to spew hatred transform as a result of spending time with the people they used to hate. When people understand that, they realize that we’re all just human beings, with many more things that bind us than separate us. I could spend my time hating people, but that is such a burden. It’s a deteriorating force. It kills your spirit, your joy. Love can be rejuvenating, and that’s what it has done for me personally. But just because I choose not to hate someone who may hate me or want to harm me, it doesn’t mean I can’t speak out against what they’re doing. I’m not attacking the person, though; I’m attacking the disease. And that’s liberating.