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Dream Defenders: Florida’s Dandelion Moment

In the days before and after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, Florida police posted PSA’s encouraging blacks not to riot, and monitored social media for hints about when and where violence might occur. The judge even delayed the announcement of the verdict, to give police time to prepare for security. Meanwhile, conservatives predicted “race riots” break out and “lynch mobs” would  roam the streets.

Something else happened. No cities burned. No blood ran in the streets.  Demonstrations were so peaceful that conservatives had to resort to inventing riots (complete with fake riot video footage). Meanwhile, thanks to a determined group of young people called Dream Defenders, things got serious in Florida.

Thousands of Americans took to the streets in largely peaceful demonstrations to express their anger and disappointment over the Zimmerman verdict. In Florida, a group of young people — mostly, but not exclusively youth of color — calling themselves Dream Defenders took their anger and frustration straight to the to the seat of power.

Just days after the Zimmerman verdict was announced, Dream Defenders borrowed a classic move from the old civil rights movement playbook. They converged on the state capital, took it over, and staged an old fashioned sit-in right in Gov. Rick Scott’s office.

Dream Defenders demanded and end to racial profiling, and the school-to-prison pipeline. They urged Gov. Rick Scott to convene a special legislative session to repeal the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law. At first, Scott refused to meet with them. But when it became clear they meant it when they said they weren’t leaving, the Dream Defenders got the governor’s attention.

Protesters who set up camp in the state Capitol building earlier this week finally got to meet with Gov. Rick Scott late Thursday, and they urged him to push for the repeal of Florida’s “stand-your-ground” law and to take steps to combat racial profiling.

In a conference room near his office suite, Scott met for nearly an hour with seven leaders of the protest, which began Tuesday. They described their frustration about last weekend’s acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin and their own experiences of being racially profiled.

… Scott listened intently and took copious notes on a yellow legal pad. But at the end of the meeting he told them directly that he supported keeping the “stand-your-ground” law intact and he would not call a special session.

Scott, who said he had spoken earlier in the evening with Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, instead said he would call for a day of prayer Sunday for unity.

He also urged the protesters to talk to local legislators if they wanted to change state law and offer them examples of why they believe it may lead to more violence.

If Scott thought that his meeting with the Dream Defenders would get them out of his office or out of the capital, he was mistaken. These young people didn’t come to the capital for a polite chat with the governor. They came as citizens, to “petition the government for a redress of grievances.” They came seeking action.

When it was clear that Gov. Scott would not call a special session, the Dream Defenders held their own mock special session, perhaps to show lawmakers how it might be done. Then they started working to persuade lawmakers.

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 to the Old Capitol.

But 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.”

Rather than wait for lawmakers to do it, the Dream Defenders began drafting legislation themselves.

Those camped inside the Capitol intend to hold their own week-long session in the hallways of the Senate chambers to draft “Trayvon’s Law,” legislation they feel will help redress the perceived social injustices highlighted by the verdict.

Trayvon’s Law has three pillars. First, is the repeal of Stand Your Ground laws in Florida, which sanction the use of deadly force against a possibly deadly threat without the obligation to retreat.

Second, is an end to racial profiling by police coupled with preventative training and disciplinary procedures that curtail it.

The third pillar would end Florida’s zero-tolerance school policing policy. The Dream Defenders say these school policing standards contribute to what activists call the “school to prison pipeline,” a phenomenon whereby young people of color find themselves more quickly and easily incarcerated than others.

At this point, I can almost imagine the Dream Defenders saying to Florida’s lawmakers, “C’mon. We’ve drafted a bill for you. We’ve even showed you how a special session can be done. At this point, all you guys have to do is show up.”

If or when lawmakers finally show up to address their concerns, the Dream Defenders will be there. They have been every day, for more than 16 days. Every night at least 15 Dream Defenders stay overnight, waiting for the governor or lawmakers to prove themselves as serious about the issues as they are. They sleep on sheets, because sleeping bags and mattresses are not permitted in the state capital. When the building is closed, they are cut off from the public. When the building is open, activists and supporters being in food to sustain them when the building is closed.

If Florida lawmakers are ignoring them, the rest of the world isn’t. The Dream Defenders have won support from high profile figures like Rev. Jesse Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Jamie Foxx, Chuck D, Nas, Q-Tip, and rock guitarist Tom Morello. They have won public support, too, as word of their movement spreads via social media.

They will likely gather more public support. If they get no satisfaction from the governor or the legislature, the Dream Defenders plan to register Florida voters in support of their legislation, and present their ideas to committees in Florida’s legislature come September.

In my previous post, I borrowed the phrase “dandelion moments” to describe movements like North Carolina’s Moral Mondays.

There’s another answer to that question, “What’s next?” The Moral Mondays movement is what’s next. Progressive movements have sprung up all over the country in the last few years, in what’s been described as “dandelion moments”.

Stephen Shapiro describes Occupy as a “dandelion moment” in which the movement successfully dispersed seeds to float and root, thereby growing into a bigger movement. We would not limit the seeds to the US Occupy, but include the Arab Spring, the Indignados, the current revolts in Brazil and Turkey and the new phase of revolt in Egypt. All of these mass actions spread around the globe like seeds spurring more mass actions. In the U.S. we certainly see ongoing activism around many issues and flowers of resistance growing.

Shapiro also describes the moment we are in as a potential pre-history moment, asking: “What if we are in a time akin to the early ’60s and in a few years there is a May 1968 moment?” The actions around the country indicate a potential pre-history moment, a lot is bubbling around the country, not quite boiling but getting hotter.

From the protests in Wisconsin to the Occupy Wall Street movement, the pro-choice uprising in Texas, the low-wage workers going on strike to demand livable wages, and the Florida students who staged a sit-in in Gov. Rick Scott’s office to demand an end to the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law, progressive movements have dispersed their seeds far and wide. Those seeds took root and blossomed in North Carolina in the last 13 weeks. Its seeds will spread that movement far beyond North Carolina.

Florida’s Dream Defenders are another example of the seeds of progressive movements taking root and blossoming at exactly the right time, and exactly where they are most needed. The Dream Defenders started growing right after Trayvon Martin was killed. Now they are blossoming, and doing so beautifully.

Conservatives predicted that the response to the Zimmerman verdict would be nightmarish. Instead, we got the Dream Defenders channeling their anger and frustration into constructive change, and showing an incredible amount of trust in the ability of our system of government to bring about meaningful, desperately-needed change.

The dream these young people are defending is as old, if not older, than America itself. It is a dream that needs defending if it it to be fulfilled for all Americans. Today, I can think of few better defenders than the Dream Defenders.

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