TALLAHASSEE —When the young activists known as the Dream Defenders marched into Gov. Rick Scott's office last week, few observers expected the group to attract much attention.
Seven days later, they've proved hard to ignore.
What began as a modest protest has morphed into a weeklong occupation of the Florida Capitol. The organizers, most of whom are college students and young professionals, say they are prepared to stay for weeks or even months — as long as it takes for Scott to call a special session on racial profiling and the state's controversial "stand your ground" law.
Never mind that Scott has refused, making the odds of a special session almost nonexistent.
"We stay until we win," said Gabriel Pendas, one of the group's co-founders.
Over the past week, the Dream Defenders have emerged as a well-organized coalition with the keen ability to remain in the news cycle. On Tuesday, they announced plans to hold weekly demonstrations in the Florida Capitol, a strategy akin to the Moral Monday protests taking place in North Carolina. The Dream Defenders news conference was broadcast live on the Internet.
In the end, the Dream Defenders may not be able to win a special session, but they may succeed in prompting legislative action through another route. Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, is calling for a hearing on the "stand your ground'' law during the Legislature's next committee week in September.
Democratic leaders in the House are onboard with the idea.
"The kids have the right idea taking it right to the governor," said House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, also of Fort Lauderdale. "We're trying to have a compromise by having a common-sense conversation addressing those issues."
The Dream Defenders began their protest July 16, three days after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old.
The activists are calling for legislation in Martin's name that would repeal the existing "stand your ground'' law, address racial profiling and eliminate zero-tolerance policies in schools. The group has taken an organized approach to the occupation that they say is sustainable for the next several weeks.
Taking a cue from Occupy Wall Street, they have formed a half-dozen committees with different responsibilities. One committee is tasked with community outreach. Another handles meals and sleeping arrangements. A separate team makes sure everyone is exercising, resting and staying clean. Meals are an organized affair. Group members keeps tab on when food was donated and make an effort to eat the perishables first.
"We have everything we need," Dream Defenders director Phillip Agnew said. "It's not like we're comfortable, but it's not supposed to be comfortable. We could stay here easily for the next few weeks."
The Capitol police have no plans to ask the Dream Defenders to leave, Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said Tuesday. So far, there have been no dust-ups with police.
The costs to the state have been adding up.
FDLE has spent about $37,000 in overtime for police officers at the Capitol, Plessinger said. And the FDLE's Tallahassee regional operational office has spent an additional $5,000 in management costs.
The Dream Defenders themselves have had a few hiccups.
On Monday, the group received a letter from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services saying it had not filed the necessary paperwork to solicit cash and in-kind donations. It may be facing fines. It submitted the application Tuesday, Dream Defenders legal and policy director Ahmad Abuznaid said.
The group has also had to deflect allegations that it is pursuing a union-driven agenda.
The property services workers' union 32BJ SEIU pays Agnew $29,000 annually to run the Dream Defenders. And Pendas was on the union payroll for several months last year.
Both deny that the union created the Dream Defenders or has any control over the group's mission or policies.
"To say that some union is masterminding us is an insult," Agnew said. "Give a little more credit to the youth of Florida."
Eric Brakken, the union's leader in Florida, said the Dream Defenders are independent.
Agnew said his group has not received any donations from labor unions or any other political organizations.
"Since we started, our budget has basically been zero," Agnew said, noting that all of the other young staff members are volunteers, and most of the in-kind donations have come from individuals and local churches.
Agnew said the week had been a learning experience for the year-old organization.
"People can try to bring us down," he said. "But we're not going anywhere."
Kathleen McGrory can be reached at [email protected]