When the group of student activists known as the Dream Defenders entered the Florida Capitol last month to demand a special session on the controversial "stand your ground" law, they couldn't have predicted how they would leave. They left Thursday with tangible accomplishments and the seeds of a promising, progressive organization. They did not force a special session of the Legislature or a repeal of the indefensible law, but they did capture the attention of the public, the ear of Tallahassee lawmakers and a promise of a legislative hearing this fall. Not bad for a bunch of young people with passion for what is right and no political connections or campaign cash.
The activists could not have timed it better. Their sit-in demonstration — the longest at the Capitol in recent memory — was launched on July 16, three days after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and in the midst of the summer doldrums in the state capital when the spotlight was there for the taking. The group promised to stay until a special legislative session was called, but that demand always was a long shot. The governor and fellow Republicans in the Legislature have repeatedly expressed solid support for "stand your ground" and ignored objective measures of the law's considerable flaws.
By keeping their protest organized and peaceful, the Dream Defenders kept the focus on their list of criminal justice critiques. This earned them a number of small victories. The governor met with them as did the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters held a long session with the group discussing what her agency is doing to end the school-to-prison pipeline — a key concern of the protesters. House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, promised to hold a hearing on the "stand your ground" law in the fall. Now Weatherford should ensure that it's not a charade but a fair public airing of the law's flaws.
The Dream Defenders are an authentic student movement. They can solidify this new influence by registering 61,550 voters by 2014, as they have committed to doing. The number chosen is both a warning and clever public relations — Scott's margin of victory in the 2010 election. The governor deserves credit for allowing the protest to peacefully play out, and the students have learned about the power of a united voice and the importance of not giving up.