Dream Defenders end sit-in protest at Capitol in Tallahassee

They weren’t able to convince Gov. Rick Scott to call a special session on the controversial Stand Your Ground self-defense law.

But the student activists known as the Dream Defenders drew national attention to their cause by holding the longest sit-in demonstration in the Florida Capitol in recent memory.

On Thursday, the Miami-based group announced that their record-setting protest was over — for now, at least.

“After 31 days and 30 nights, we are leaving the Capitol for our next phase,” Dream Defenders Executive Director Phillip Agnew said.

Agnew said the group would register thousands of new voters in the coming months, and return to the Capitol for the annual legislative committee hearings held in the fall.

The Dream Defenders’ occupation of the Capitol began on July 16, three days after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager from Miami-Dade. They promised to stay until Scott convened a special session on the Stand Your Ground law and several other criminal justice issues.

“We said if [Scott] would not give us a seat at the table, we would sleep on the floor until [he] gave us what we deserved,” Agnew said.

Scott met with the protesters on July 18, but refused their demands.

The Dream Defenders tried to persuade state lawmakers to call the session themselves, but could not muster the 96 votes they needed. As of Thursday, only 42 lawmakers had voted in favor of holding the session. Of the remaining lawmakers, 90 voted against the session and 28 had yet to participate in the poll.

This week, House Speaker Will Weatherford called for the group’s departure.

The Dream Defenders claimed several victories, including a promise from Weatherford to hold a hearing on the Stand Your Ground law this fall. The group also secured meetings with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to discuss racial profiling, Agnew said, and began a dialogue with the state Department of Juvenile Justice on the disproportionate number of young African-American men in prison.

Agnew said the Dream Defenders had not been pressured to wrap up their protest by governor’s office or state law enforcement officials. The Capitol Police who had watched over the group, Agnew added, “deserved a raise.”

The state spent a total of $153,630 on police overtime throughout the protest, according to FDLE.

The Dream Defenders didn’t anticipate their stay would last a month, or that singer Harry Belafonte, rapper Talib Kweli or civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson and Julian Bond would join them in the Capitol.

“Gov. Scott, through his inaction, created a new group of leaders who will have a lasting effect on Florida,” said state Rep. Alan Williams, a Tallahassee Democrat who mentored the group.

When they packed up their belongings and left the Capitol Thursday evening, the young activists wondered aloud if there had been some level of divine intervention along the way.

On Wednesday, the state Department of Management Services announced plans to test out the fire alarm system in the Capitol. The testing would last from 8 p.m. until midnight, and involve an “incredibly loud, high-pitch noise,” according to a press release.

But before the testing began, the building adjacent to the Capitol was struck by lightning. The Department of Management Services decided to perform maintenance on that building’s fire alarm system instead.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” Dream Defender Steven Pargett said. “Some things are just meant to happen.”

Herald/Times staff writers Tia Mitchell and Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. Kathleen McGrory can be reached at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.