Protesters hold mock session with Rev. Jesse Jackson, pursue Plan B

Published July 31, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — The student activists known as the Dream Defenders held a mock session of the Florida Legislature on Tuesday — a well-orchestrated spectacle that drew a half-dozen news cameras and the Rev. Jesse Jackson to the Old Capitol.

Behind the scenes, the group quietly pursued a plan to call the real lawmakers into action.

The Dream Defenders are enlisting lawmakers to petition the state for a special session on the controversial "stand your ground" law. If 32 lawmakers express support, the entire Legislature will be polled on the subject. Three-fifths of all members, or 96 lawmakers, can then demand a special session take place.

The Dream Defenders acknowledge that winning over 96 lawmakers is a long shot. But Ciara Taylor, the group's political director, says they already have enough lawmakers to trigger the poll.

"We're not random kids coming to the Capitol," Taylor said. "We're Dream Defenders for a reason. We have a dream. We have vision. We plan to see it through."

The Dream Defenders have been camped outside Gov. Rick Scott's office for two weeks in hopes that the governor will call a special session on "stand your ground." The controversial self-defense law factored into George Zimmerman's acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager.

Scott has repeatedly said he won't call a special session.

So the Dream Defenders are pursuing a Plan B: persuading lawmakers to call the session themselves.

The group says more than 32 state lawmakers have already agreed to petition for a poll. They won't list the elected officials, but they have made five names public: state Sen. Darren Soto of Orlando and state Reps. Janet Cruz of Tampa, Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach, Barbara Watson of Miami Gardens and Alan Williams of Tallahassee.

All five are Democrats.

"This is their call to action," Williams said of the students. "They understand that the governor won't do it, and the Senate president has said that he won't do it. So now it's incumbent upon them to use the last option that the Constitution affords … and that's the polling of members to request a special session."

Watson, whose district includes the Martin family home and Trayvon Martin's high school, said she believes a special session is necessary.

"We need a time to focus on this 'stand your ground' law, which has caused so much heartache in our community," she said.

The Dream Defenders say the lawmakers must now submit their requests for a poll.

But even if the poll takes place, finding the 96 needed to approve a special session could still be a challenge.

Neither Senate President Don Gaetz nor House Speaker Will Weatherford supports the idea. Gaetz and Weatherford have the power to call the Legislature to Tallahassee on their own but have refused.

On Monday, Gaetz said he sympathized with the students, but a special session would be pointless.

"You don't call a special session to bring 160 politicians into town to turn them lose and hope it works out," he said. "To my knowledge, there have been no bills filed."

Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said he had not been contacted by the Dream Defenders. But Rouson said he could support a special session if it were convened during a committee week this fall, when lawmakers are already scheduled to be in Tallahassee.

"There's a window of opportunity where it wouldn't cost as much," Rouson said.

Hoping to spark excitement, the Dream Defenders held their mock special session Tuesday, with the help of the Rev. Jackson.

Jackson said he would be joining the Defenders for "at least one night" in the Capitol.

"He'll be on the floor with the rest of us," Dream Defenders executive director Phillip Agnew said.

During the gathering, dubbed the "People's Session," the group pronounced a series of resolutions.

They declared Tuesdays "Takeover Tuesdays" to mark their first day of protest in the Capitol. They declared Trayvon Martin Day on his birthday, Feb. 5. And they called for the pardon of Jacksonville resident Marissa Alexander, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison after firing a pistol at her abusive husband but missing.

"This is a student movement at its best," said a soft-spoken Jackson, wearing a Dream Defenders T-shirt. "They're following the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi in staging a nonviolent protest. It's the definition of patriotism."

Jackson is the second national figure to visit the young protesters in two weeks. Singer Harry Belafonte spoke to the group Friday.

Times/Herald staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at