Call the "woke busters": Ron DeSantis sends volunteer army to snatch books from students' hands

Florida's GOP governor claims there's no war on reading — so why are there censorship troops?

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published February 3, 2023 5:45AM (EST)

Ron DeSantis (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Ron DeSantis (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis may not want a reputation as a book banner, but that's not slowing down the Republican's efforts to knock as many books out of the hands of students, both college-age and younger. In fact, Florida Republicans' war on reading is only escalating, with the GOP engaged in a full-scale gaslighting project to deny what is clearly a campaign of threats and intimidation to keep teachers from letting kids read. 

Last week, the investigative journalism team at Popular Info published a report showing that teachers in Florida are being told to lock up their classroom libraries or risk felony prosecution. Images of bookshelves being put behind barriers and stories of children crying quickly went viral. That's when the gaslighting began.

The books that offend the "woke busters" are mostly written by women of color. 

DeSantis' lieutenant and Florida Commissioner of Education, Manny Diaz Jr., called the story "fake news" and accused the teachers of overreacting. But, as Judd Legum of Popular Info confirmed in a follow-up report, "Diaz's recommendations to teachers directly contradicts the training produced by his own agency," which requires all books to be prescreened and warns that the censors must "err on the side of caution" when  deciding if a book fits the very right-wing definition of "harmful to minors." As Legum points out, one author that has been frequently targeted by Republican censors is Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison, making it clear that it's not "pornography" that is in dispute here — which no one actually thinks teachers were providing — but internationally renowned literature. That explains why books about the Holocaust and Martin Luther King Jr. have also been frequently targeted by Republicans for bans. 

Meanwhile, as Republican politicians play "don't believe your lying eyes" games, they are also amassing a volunteer army of wannabe censors who are ready to descend on schools to make sure no errant books slip past their anti-reading dragnet.

The Manatee Patriots, a right-wing group in Florida's Manatee County, recently put out a recruitment call for "woke busters" to be the "eyes and ears and boots on the ground in the schools" to stop educators from "filling the libraries with these books." It did not take much digging to discover that the "woke busters" have extremely broad ideas about what constitutes "inappropriate" reading material. Their parent group, Manatee Patriots, recently celebrated what they claim was a successful effort to force a public library to take down a display celebrating LGBTQ history. They objected to the library's alliance with a local youth group that serves LGBTQ teens, claiming it's "the first stage of Grooming" and "Porn" for the group to offer information to kids about safer sex.  

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"More things found in the Library," their site breathlessly reads. The offensive materials they flagged? Michelle Obama's memoir and a history of Barack Obama's presidency.

Books flagged for banning include The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang, and Monday's Not Coming by Tiffany Jackson. 

Yep, they not only want to erase sex education but documented evidence that the U.S. once had a Black president. These are the folks who are worming their way into Florida schools, based on DeSantis' censorship orders, to decide what students should be allowed to read.


The Manatee Patriots' website has pages dedicated to stirring up outrage over what they deem "filth" students are reading. And digging through the social media presence of the "woke-busting" Patriots only piles on the worry that these are people who are so censorious that the Little Golden Book about "The Poky Little Puppy" would offend them. (Surely, a book about a dog who digs under fences to access the neighbor's property is a covert Marxist!) A Patriots leader who advertised the "Vetting Inappropriate Books Workshop," for instance, also posts conspiracy theories accusing Bill Gates of driving up egg prices so he can force "artificial" eggs on Americans.

Despite the tendency of Republicans to invoke elementary school kids when talking about the need for book banning, the classrooms being targeted are in high schools and middle schools. Books flagged for banning include The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang, and Monday's Not Coming by Tiffany Jackson. Digging into the complaints, it becomes clear that, despite lots of hysteria about "depictions of sexual activity" in books meant for nearly adult readers, the real objections are centered around the acknowledgment that racism is real or that LGBTQ people exist. Unsurprisingly, few, if any, of the targeted authors are white men. The books that offend the "woke busters" are mostly written by women of color. 

Despite claiming to speak for "parents," it wasn't at all clear that the Manatee Patriots have many members with kids in school, and photos of their events suggest most of them have long aged out of the range where that's even remotely likely. The likelier explanation for what's going on here is that the "woke busters" are angry old white people who are taking out their resentments about social change on school-aged kids who are an easy target because they have very little social power and can't vote yet. Why should the Manatee Patriots care if their "activism" deprives kids of the basic educational resources they need to grow into healthy, productive adults? All that authoritarians care about is power and using that power to punish anyone who reminds them that they are a bunch of bigots. 

Unfortunately, Republican leaders in Florida have decided it's quite profitable to cater to a bunch of anti-reading fanatics who cannot stand the idea that kids and grandkids grow up to have minds of their own. On Thursday, Sen. Marco Rubio posted a screed attempting to recast book banning as "freedom," arguing that the real freedom is in being "protected" from "woke ideology."

The GOP's message is clear: If you can't read the book you want, don't worry about it. There is no greater freedom than the freedom from having to think for yourself. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Book Banning Commentary Manatee Patriots Marco Rubio Ron Desantis