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Capitol demonstrators determined to make a difference

TALLAHASSEE — They are young Floridians from Jacksonville to Miami. They are college students and schoolteachers, lawyers, community organizers and social workers. They make up a rainbow of American colors: black, white and brown.

And they are literally sitting down for a cause, refusing to leave Gov. Rick Scott's office.

They call themselves the Dream Defenders. Over the past four days, they have brought national attention to the Florida Capitol by staging the longest sit-in demonstration in recent memory. They have vowed to stay put until Scott convenes a special legislative session on "Stand Your Ground," the controversial self-defense law that factored into George Zimmerman's acquittal in the shooting death of an unarmed teenager.

The governor has refused to meet the young activists' demands. But their persistence has galvanized state Democratic lawmakers, who have turned up the pressure for a special session.

It's no small feat for a grassroots organization that got its start in Miami just over a year ago.

"It's been pretty surreal," said Phillip Agnew, the group's 28-year-old executive director. "And we're just getting started."

Agnew has experience with civil disobedience — and prolonged stays at the Florida Capitol.

He was the student body vice president at Florida A&M University when 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson was beaten to death at a Florida boot camp in 2006. At the time, Agnew was more interested in parties than protests. But when he realized that Martin Lee Anderson was the same age as his own little brother, Agnew joined student-led efforts to demonstrate at the Capitol.

That's when he got to know Gabriel Pendas and Ahmad Abuznaid, like-minded student leaders at Florida State University.

The three helped organize a 33-hour sit-in of then Gov. Jeb Bush's office. The demonstration received national coverage, and helped prompt the closing of the boot camp and the resignation of the state's top law enforcement official.

It was a formative experience for the three young men. Pendas, who grew up in Miami, abandoned his plans to become a physicist and pursued a career in community organizing.

Agnew, the son of a Chicago preacher, said he, too, found his calling.

"I spoke in front of 5,000 people," he recalled. "I literally opened my mouth and my father came out. It was like, this is what I was meant to do."

The three friends "became brothers that night," Pendas said.

After college, however, they lost touch. Pendas moved to New York to work as a community organizer in the Bronx. Abuznaid graduated from law school and was living with his father in Amsterdam.

Agnew was working a pharmaceutical sales rep in Charlotte.

"I hated my job," he said. "I felt horrible about what I was doing."

When the Occupy movement took hold in September 2011, Agnew began to agitate. Five months later, Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in a gated-community in Sanford.

Agnew got on the phone with Pendas, Abuznaid and the others who had taken part in the 2006 protest. They planned a 40-person march from Daytona to Sanford in April 2012. When the group arrived, six members blocked the door to the Sanford Police Department headquarters to protest the fact that Zimmerman had not yet been arrested.

"It was a continuation of our work with Martin Lee Anderson," Pendas said. "Another young man of color had been killed. We needed to take a stand."

They had a new name: the Dream Defenders.

"It was the perfect framework," Pendas said. "Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream. Millions of Latino students have a dream." The latter is a reference to the fight in Congress undocumented immigrant children are waging to gain legal status through the DREAM Act.

The march turned out to be just the beginning. A handful of current FAMU and Florida State students had become involved in the Dream Defenders through Facebook and Twitter. And the young activists were hungry for next steps.

That's when the idea really coalesced. The Dream Defenders would do more than just advocate for social justice causes. They would develop the next generation of student leaders.

Agnew, Abuznaid and Pendas moved into a house in Miami Lakes — it was later nicknamed the "Dream House" — and began to develop the organization.

The Dream Defenders now has chapters on nine college campuses in Florida. More than 100 student members have campaigned to end prison privatization, racial profiling and zero tolerance policies in schools.

"They make the decisions on what kind of campaigns they want to run and we help them facilitate it," said Abuznaid, who serves as the group's legal and policy director. "The leadership is shared between us and the students."

The organization survives on private donations and contributions from local unions. Agnew receives a small salary as executive director, but Abuznaid, Pendas and the other staffers work for free. They hope to continue expanding and eventually, have a fully funded staff that receives health benefits.

For now, they are focused on the ongoing occupation of Scott's office, which began Tuesday.

About 60 Dream Defenders are taking part in the demonstration, including Agnew, Abuznaid, Pendas and a handful of others from the 2006 sit-in.

For the group's younger members, the demonstration has been a learning experience. The students are essentially shut in for the night when the Capitol closes at 5 p.m. They sleep on thin mats on the marble floor. Even at night, the harsh overhead lights stay on.

During the day, the activists have hours-long discussions about social justice, and attend workshops on community organizing, effective communication and leadership. Taking a cue from the Occupy movement, they have divided into committees to handle media, logistics, outreach and clean up.

"We who believe in freedom cannot rest," they often sing. "We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it's won."

The group leaders say they won't leave until Scott has convened a special session to consider a Trayvon Martin Civil Rights Act, which would repeal the Stand Your Ground law and end the school-to-prison pipeline that has led a high percentage of young black men to be incarcerated at an early age.

Scott met with seven of the students late Thursday and said he would not call the Legislature to Tallahassee. He reaffirmed his position on Friday on a visit to Miami.

But having their demands met might not be the only measure of success.

"It's also about a paradigm shift," Agnew said. "It's about empowering the next generation."

Recent sit-ins have brought national attention to Florida

In 2006, a group of 30 college students staged a 33-hour sit-in protest responding to the beating death of Martin Lee Anderson at a Florida boot camp. The demonstration drew national attention and helped prompt reform.

In 2000, state Sen. Kendrick Meek and state Rep. Tony Hill occupied the lieutenant governor's office for 20 hours after Gov. Jeb Bush refused to rescind an executive order ending racial and gender preferences in university admissions. The high-profile sit-in was followed by one of the largest protests in Florida's history.

Capitol demonstrators determined to make a difference 07/19/13 [Last modified: Friday, July 19, 2013 9:18pm]

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