TALLAHASSEE -- When the Florida Department of Law Enforcement agreed to let a group of student activists spend the night in the Capitol last month, nobody expected they would stay long.
But three weeks later, the young protesters are still there, with the tacit approval of Gov. Rick Scott.
Scott doesn’t support the protesters’ calls for a special session on the Stand Your Ground law, and has met with them only once. But he has allowed them to stay in the Capitol for an unprecedented length of time.
It’s a distinctly different approach than the one taken by former Gov. Jeb Bush, who quickly grew impatient when two lawmakers refused to leave the lieutenant governor’s office in 2000. Bush famously instructed his staff to “kick their asses out,” a quote he later said was directed at the reporters covering the protest.
Scott isn’t a fan of confrontation. He is also hamstrung by social media in a way his predecessors weren’t. The protesters currently in the Capitol are documenting their stay in real time on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. Any attempt to kick them out would almost certainly go viral — and resurface when Scott runs for reelection in 2014.
“The governor is in a tricky spot,” said Florida State University sociologist Deana Rohlinger, who studies mass media and social movements. “He doesn’t want to address [the protesters’] issues, but he also wants to come across as a consensus builder.”
Scott spokeswoman Melissa Sellers declined to comment on the administration’s strategy on the protest, except to say that the Capitol is “a great place where they can be here and speak their minds.”
The protest, led by a Miami-based group known as the Dream Defenders, started July 16, in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The young activists demanded Scott convene a special session to create a Trayvon Martin Civil Rights Act, which would repeal Stand Your Ground and prohibit racial profiling.
Three days into the protest, Scott met with the group and said a special session was out of the question. Since then, it’s been a stalemate.
State guidelines limit public events in the Capitol to regular business hours. But officials with the state Department of Management Services say the rules are flexible. In this case, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement decided to let the protesters stay on nights and weekends for safety reasons, spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said.
“Given the limited options, Commissioner [Gerald Bailey] determined it was in the best interest of public safety and our officers not to remove them,” Plessinger said.
But observers say social media likely factored into the decision, too.
Former state Rep. Tony Hill, who stayed overnight in 2000 protesting the planned elimination of affirmative action in university admissions, noted that the Dream Defenders carry smart phones and other devices that enable them to stream video in real time.
If Capitol Police were to get pushy or make them leave, “they’re rolling,” Hill said. “That’s a big difference.”
Said House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale: “I don’t think kicking them out would be a good PR move for the governor. I think he is very much aware of that.”
State officials have, however, found a way to apply pressure on the Dream Defenders. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement sends daily updates to reporters on the overtime costs brought on by the protest.
The tab to date: $134,446.63.
Plessinger said the department had not yet exceeded its budget for overtime expenditures. “But there may come a time when we have to ask for additional funds,” she said.
State law enforcement officials say they began releasing the figures “after receiving multiple requests for this information, both from the media and the public.”
But Rohlinger, the FSU professor, said the daily updates work in Scott’s favor.
“If you have a Tea Party movement in the state, what better way to get people to oppose the protest than by telling them how much it is costing the taxpayer?” she said.
Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican, said Scott had been “more than patient with the situation.”
But former state Sen. Nan Rich, a Weston Democrat running for governor, said Scott hadn’t spent enough time with the protesters.
“He doesn’t have a good track record of answering questions and talking to people like this,” said Rich, who travelled to Tallahassee to meet with the group last month. “This is a dialogue that needs to happen.”
Herald/Times staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Kathleen McGrory can be reached at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.