BY MARGIE MENZEL
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
TALLAHASSEE – After sitting in at the Florida Capitol for 31 days – since just after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin – the group called the Dream Defenders ended its protest Thursday with the help of civil rights icon Julian Bond.
Leaders said they’ll carry their campaign against the “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law and what they consider other forms of racial bias to the polls, trying to defeat the elected officials who opposed their demands.
That includes Gov. Rick Scott, who is up for re-election next year. The Dream Defenders announced a voter registration drive, with a goal of 61,550 new voters – Scott’s margin of victory in 2010.
“Our work and our power have grown too big for these walls,” said Phillip Agnew, leader of the Dream Defenders.
The group marched to the Capitol on July 16 and demanded a special session on “Stand Your Ground,” which they didn’t get. But they got a national hearing, and Bond – founder of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and a longtime Georgia lawmaker – declared their nonviolent action a success in the tradition of the 1960s civil rights movement.
“It’s fitting that the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is coming up in a few days,” he said. “That movement made this movement possible, and that movement – your movement – gave our movement its legacy.”
The protest ignited when Zimmerman was acquitted of murder in the shooting death of the unarmed teen Martin. Although Zimmerman’s attorneys did not invoke the “Stand Your Ground” law, which grants immunity to people who use deadly force if they have reason to believe their lives are in jeopardy, the circumstances of Martin’s death touched a nerve among many Black, Hispanic and mixed-race people.
Members of the Dream Defenders are mostly high school and college students – “Black and Brown youth,” they call themselves. They’ve spent the last month in Scott’s office waiting area, telling stories of losing loved ones to gun violence or experiencing racism in school or on the street. They worked laptops, smartphones and video cameras from the third-floor House Democratic office, getting the word out online. They slept on the floor outside the governor’s double doors.
Agnew said the group would leave the Capitol to serve Scott with an eviction notice. He also said they were leaving on their own terms. He pointed to House Speaker Will Weatherford’s promise that the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee would hold a hearing on “Stand Your Ground” during a committee week this fall.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican and chairman of the subcommittee, said its members would have an opportunity to vote their consciences. But Gaetz has also said “not one comma” of the “Stand Your Ground” law should be changed.
Gaetz also has noted that Floridians support “Stand Your Ground” by a 2-to-1 margin.
In listing his group’s accomplishments, Agnew said it had forced a poll of lawmakers about whether to have the special session – a proposed session that was overwhelmingly rejected earlier this week.
And they spent an hour with Scott, who refused to call the special session but allowed them to protest at the Capitol around the clock.
In a statement, Scott thanked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Capitol Police “for providing a safe environment for people to exercise their First Amendment rights.
We live in a great state, in a great nation, where everyone is free to express their views.”
According to FDLE, 33 protesters stayed overnight Wednesday, and as of Thursday, the state had spent $428,566.69 on security.
The sit-in also drew a steady stream of visitors, including entertainer and civil-rights veteran Harry Belafonte, Florida Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters and rapper Talib Kweli.
Another visitor was longtime activist Rev. Jesse Jackson, who touched off his own media storm by claiming that Florida practiced apartheid and comparing Scott to segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace.
Agnew said the group would return to the Capitol on Sept. 23, when legislative committees start meeting in advance of the 2014 regular session.