TALLAHASSEE — After keeping his distance for three days, Florida Gov. Rick Scott raced back to Tallahassee on Thursday night and met for about 30 minutes with a group of young protesters who are occupying the Capitol to seek repeal of the state's "stand your ground" law.
In the end, the protesters made their case, and Scott was insistent that the self-defense law should remain on the books.
Scott, who had spent all but one of the previous seven days away from Tallahassee, flew back to the capital and met with seven members of the Dream Defenders, a statewide group of college students and young professionals that has held firm since Tuesday morning. They want a review of the law widely perceived to be at the heart of George Zimmerman's acquittal in the death of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
"We think 'stand your ground' has created a culture that allowed Zimmerman to think that what he did was okay," said Gabriel Pendas, a founder of the protest group.
"I believe 'stand your ground' should stay in the books," Scott said, taking notes on a yellow legal pad. "I agree with you, we should not have racial profiling."
Scott called for a statewide day of prayer for unity on Sunday and talked about how he has met with Martin's parents and introduced them to the FDLE agents who investigated his death.
But he was firm in that he would not convene a special session of the Legislature to take up possible changes to the law. Denied by the governor, the dozens of protesters hunkered down for the night with pillows and sleeping bags across the Capitol's marble floor. They say they won't leave until Scott calls a special session.
The governor's abrupt return to Tallahassee was unexpected. Earlier Thursday, he appeared at a tourism event in Tampa, promoting the Bollywood Oscars and taking one media question at an event billed by his office as a "media availability." Later, Scott cut short a jobs roundtable at a citrus plant in Bradenton without explanation.
Scott has a well-known aversion to drama or confrontation, and his absence from Tallahassee struck some as a deliberate strategy to avoid facing a peaceful band of students.
"No more cowardice," the Dream Defenders said of Scott on Twitter earlier Thursday.
Scott has faced student protests before.
In December 2011, FAMU students marched to the Governor's Mansion when Scott called for the suspension of FAMU's president after the hazing death of band member Robert Champion. In an effort to relate to his young audience, Scott told them he grew up in public housing.
"We're not poor!" a student shouted back at Scott.
The students now occupying the Capitol, from several Florida colleges, pledge to stay until Scott calls a special session to review "stand your ground" and the institutional racism they say persists in Florida.
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A special session is highly unlikely, given the unwavering support for the 2005 law by Scott and his fellow Republicans in the Legislature.
Undaunted, the activists are holding workshops on social justice, living on takeout pizza and bottled water and sleeping on the Capitol's cold floors.
Scott was in New York when the Zimmerman verdict was announced Saturday. He did not return to Tallahassee until Tuesday night and left town for Pensacola early Wednesday. He planned to spend Thursday night in the Sarasota area and visit Miami today, but changed his plans to meet with the protesters.
From afar, Scott praised the students for their persistence. "I think it is great that people are exercising their voices," he said Wednesday in Pensacola.
Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, has made repeat visits to the Capitol on behalf of the black legislative caucus he chairs and chided Scott for spending Tuesday night in the Governor's Mansion and leaving "under the cover of darkness."
Late Thursday, Williams released a statement saying, "They're not here just for a brief conversation with the governor. They're protesting because they rightfully believe the streets of our state are not safe for them under a 'stand your ground' law that is unjust and should be repealed."
Scott is getting hundreds of emails from angry constituents on both sides of the case. Some want a repeal of the self-defense law while others criticize Scott's choice of special prosecutor Angela Corey.
Still others want Scott to take a more forceful stand. Ralph Warmack of Gulfport, unhappy with liberals who "stir up racism in America," told Scott to "speak up loud and clear for Floridians against any further meddling."
Scott also must deal with a possible boycott of Florida at a time when he's touting the state's popularity as a tourist destination as proof of a rejuvenated economy.
Asked how seriously he takes the boycott threat, Scott said Thursday: "This thing should not be politicized. We lost a 17-year-old young man in our state."
At the Bradenton event at Mixon Fruit Farms, Ernie Withers, manager of a Sarasota Mercedes-Benz dealership, asked Scott whether he favored repeal of the "stand your ground" law.
"We have a jury system that is a sacred part of our country, and these six women put their lives on hold and it had to be a tough, emotional case. They did their job," Scott said. "I can't imagine losing a 17-year-old. I've got daughters 28 and 30, and I have a grandson and two more on the way. I would not (want to) lose one of them, and I'm sure that family, their lives, has changed. We should mourn with them."
Times staff writers Drew Harwell, Michael Van Sickler and Tia Mitchell and Bradenton Herald reporter Charles Schelle contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.
The out-of-town governor
Gov. Rick Scott had not been seen publicly in the state capital since Tuesday, July 9. A look at his schedule:
. July 10: Lake Mary, Seminole County
. July 11: Okeechobee, Orlando
. July 12: New York City
. Saturday: New York City
. Sunday: New York City
. Monday: New York City
. Tuesday: New York City, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.
. Wednesday: Pensacola, Panama City
. Thursday: Tampa, Bradenton
Source: Governor's Office