TALLAHASSEE -- They are young Floridians from Jacksonville to Miami. They are college students and schoolteachers, lawyers, community organizers and social workers. They make up a rainbow of American colors: black, white and brown. And they are literally sitting down for a cause, refusing to leave Gov. Rick Scott’s office.
They call themselves the Dream Defenders. Over the past four days, they have brought national attention to the Florida Capitol by staging the longest sit-in demonstration in recent memory. They have vowed to stay put until Scott convenes a special legislative session on Stand Your Ground, the controversial self-defense law that factored into George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
The governor has refused to meet the young activists’ demands. But their persistence has galvanized state Democratic lawmakers, who have turned up the pressure for a special session.
It’s no small feat for a grass-roots organization that got its start in Miami just over a year ago.
“It’s been pretty surreal,” said Phillip Agnew, the group’s 28-year-old executive director. “And we’re just getting started.”
Agnew has experience with civil disobedience — and prolonged stays at the Florida Capitol.
He was the student body vice president at Florida A&M University when 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson was beaten to death at a Florida boot camp in 2006. At the time, Agnew was more interested in parties than protests. But when he realized that Martin Lee Anderson was the same age as his own little brother, Agnew joined student-led efforts to demonstrate at the capitol.
That’s when he got to know Gabriel Pendas and Ahmad Abuznaid, like-minded student leaders at Florida State University.
The three helped organize a 33-hour sit-in of then-Gov. Jeb Bush’s office. The demonstration received national coverage, and helped prompt the closing of the boot camp and the resignation of the state’s top law enforcement official.
It was a formative experience for the three young men. Pendas, who grew up in Miami, abandoned his plans to become a physicist and pursued a career in community organizing.
Agnew, the son of a Chicago preacher, said he, too, found his calling.
“I spoke in front of 5,000 people,” he recalled. “I literally opened my mouth and my father came out. It was like, this is what I was meant to do.”
The three friends “became brothers that night,” Pendas said.
After college, however, they lost touch. Pendas moved to New York to work as a community organizer in the Bronx. Abuznaid graduated from law school and was living with his father in Amsterdam.
Agnew was working a pharmaceutical sales rep in Charlotte. “I hated my job,” he said. “I felt horrible about what I was doing.”
When the Occupy movement took hold in September 2011, Agnew began to agitate. Five months later, Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon in a gated-community in Sanford.
Agnew got on the phone with Pendas, Abuznaid and the others who had taken part in the 2006 protest. They planned a 40-person march from Daytona to Sanford in April 2012. When the group arrived, six members blocked the door to the Sanford Police Department headquarters to protest the fact that Zimmerman had not yet been arrested.