Protesters at Florida Capitol: ‘We stay until we win’

When the young activists known as the Dream Defenders marched into Gov. Rick Scott’s office last week, few observers expected the group to attract much attention.

But seven days later, the Dream Defenders have proven hard to ignore.

What began as a modest protest has morphed into a week-long occupation of the Florida Capitol. The organizers, most of whom are college students and young professionals, say they are prepared to stay for weeks or even months — as long as it takes for Scott to call a special session on racial profiling and the state’s controversial Stand Your Ground law.

Nevermind that Scott has refused, making the odds of a special session almost non-existent.

“We stay until we win,” said Gabriel Pendas, one of the group’s co-founders.

Over the past week, the Dream Defenders have emerged as a well-organized coalition with the keen ability to remain in the news cycle. On Tuesday, they announced plans to hold weekly demonstrations in the Florida Capitol, a strategy akin to the Moral Monday protests taking place in North Carolina. The Dream Defenders news conference was broadcast live on the World Wide Web.

In the end, the Dream Defenders may not be able to win a special session. But they may succeed in prompting legislative action through another route.

Sen. Chris Smith, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, is calling for a hearing on Stand Your Ground law when the Legislature holds its next committee week in September.

Democratic leaders in the House are on board with the idea.

“The kids have the right idea taking it right to the governor,” House Minority Leader Perry Thurston said. “We’re trying to have a compromise by having a common-sense conversation addressing those issues.”

The Dream Defenders began their protest last Tuesday, three days after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old.

The activists, who are students and young professionals from across the state, are calling for legislation in Trayvon’s name that would repeal the existing Stand Your Ground law, address racial profiling and eliminate zero tolerance policies in schools.

The group has taken an organized approach to the occupation that they say is sustainable for the next several weeks.

Taking a cue from Occupy Wall Street — at least one of their organizers spent time in Zuccotti Park — they have formed a half-dozen committees with different responsibilities. One committee is tasked with community outreach. Another handles the meals and sleeping arrangements. A separate team makes sure everyone is exercising, resting and staying clean.

Meals are an organized affair. Group members keeps tab on when food was donated, and make an effort to eat the perishables first.

They also keep a regular count of the toothbrushes, soaps, towels, vitamins, pillows and blankets they have in stock — and frequently update the list of supplies that they need.

“We have everything we need,” Dream Defenders director Phillip Agnew said. “It’s not like we’re comfortable, but it’s not supposed to be comfortable. We could stay here easily for the next few weeks.”

The Capitol police have no plans to ask the Dream Defenders to leave, Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said Tuesday. So far, there have been no dust-ups with police, records show.

But the costs to the state have been adding up.

FDLE has spent about $37,000 in overtime for police officers at the Capitol, Plessinger said. And the FDLE’s Tallahassee regional operational office has spent an additional $5,000 in management costs.

The Dream Defenders have themselves had a few hiccups.

On Monday, the group received a letter from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services saying they had not filed the necessary paperwork to solicit cash and in-kind donations, and may be facing fines.

They submitted the application Tuesday, Dream Defenders legal and policy director Ahmad Abuznaid said.

The group has also had to deflect allegations that they are pursuing a union-driven agenda.

The property services workers’ union SEIU 32BJ pays Agnew a $29,000 salary to run the Dream Defenders. And Pendas was on the union payroll for several months last year.

But both deny that the union created the Dream Defenders, or has any control over the group’s mission or policies.

“To say that some union is masterminding us is an insult,” Agnew said. “Give a little more credit to the youth of Florida.”

Eric Brakken, the union’s leader in Florida, said the Dream Defenders are independent. “We are involved in all sorts of organizations to lift up the aspirations of people in Florida,” he said.

Agnew said his group has not received any donations from labor unions — or any other political organizations.

“Since we started, our budget has basically been zero,” Agnew said, noting that all of the other young staff members are volunteers, and most of the in-kind donations have come from individuals and local churches.

Agnew said the week had been a learning experience for the year-old organization.

“People can try to bring us down,” he said. “But we’re not going anywhere.”

Kathleen McGrory can be reached at