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Florida Sit-in against ‘Stand Your Ground’

N.Y. Times, Aug. 11, 2013
By Lizette Alvarez

Tallahassee, Fla. — The college and high school students arranged themselves in the colonial-style chairs and on the green carpet, a portrait of the state’s Old Capitol building above them, as they exchanged stories about their lives and the travails of the “black and brown youth” in Florida.

One young woman whose parents were both drug addicts spoke about how she had defied the odds; she will graduate from college next year. A young man mentioned that he was one of the few in his family who had not ended up in prison. Another talked about his years in and out of homeless shelters while he was growing up in Miami.

Only a stone’s throw away, beyond the two receptionists in front of them and behind an imposing white door, was the office of the person they hoped would hear them and respond with action: Florida’s Republican governor, Rick Scott.

On July 16, three days after George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the Dream Defenders, as they are called, streamed into the governor’s suite to hold a sit-in. Encamped there since then, they are demanding changes to Florida’s self-defense laws, specifically the Stand Your Ground provision, and to the way minorities are treated in the state’s schools and on the streets. They have vowed to stay until a special legislative session is called on their issues.

Shamacus Carr, left, and other protesters listening to a speaker recently in the lobby of the governor’s office.

Mark Wallheiser for The New York Times

Their goal is a long shot: the governor and the Republican-controlled Legislature strongly support the self-defense law, and polls have shown that many Floridians favor it.

But the students are staying the course, encouraged that their mission has already gained some ground.

“I’ve had it going through the normal routes because it doesn’t work,” said Ciara Taylor, 24, a Florida A&M University political science graduate who helped lobby lawmakers as a student and is now the Dream Defenders’ political director. “People tell us that certain things aren’t possible, but they are coming through every day. We are proving them wrong every minute.”

So far, the Dream Defenders, which formed last year to fight for social change after Mr. Martin’s death, have scored a few victories. The first was when Governor Scott, who initially ignored the protesters, agreed to sit down with them. The governor listened for more than an hour but did not agree to call a special session.

The group persisted, growing larger and attracting high-profile figures like the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who angered the governor by calling Florida an “apartheid state”; the entertainer and social activist Harry Belafonte; and the rapper Talib Kweli.

Most recently, the speaker of the Florida House, Will Weatherford, announced that he would ask a House subcommittee to conduct a hearing on the Stand Your Ground law this fall — an important first step, the students feel.

“We have a plan, a plan to persevere,” said Phillip Agnew, the leader of the Dream Defenders and the only one who is being paid. The Service Employees International Union is paying his small salary.

But the students may have to persevere for a long time. Besides the stiff resistance from the governor and the Legislature, State Representative Matt Gaetz, a Republican who will lead the House subcommittee hearing, said recently that he did not want to alter “one damn comma of Stand Your Ground.”

“I think you have protesters in the Capitol today who are protesting without a whole lot of knowledge about the fact patterns associated with Stand Your Ground,” Mr. Gaetz said in an interview. “They are protesting for the sake of protesting, and we shouldn’t capitulate to that.”

Mr. Gaetz said he would ensure a “fair debate” on the issue and would work with Democrats to help them air their agenda. But he was critical of the protesters, saying they were capitalizing on Mr. Martin’s death to “begin their own movement.”

“Do you really think that there would be this great push to repeal the Stand Your Ground law if Zimmerman had been convicted?” Mr. Gaetz asked.

Don Gaetz, Mr. Gaetz’s father and the president of the State Senate, called the protesters cooperative and respectful. But he recently declined a request by the Senate Democratic leader to convene a select committee to review the law.

Florida was the first state to pass a Stand Your Ground law. It did so in 2005, with strong support from the National Rifle Association. The law allows people who fear serious injury or death to defend themselves, even if they have the opportunity to retreat and are in a public place.

Last year, the governor created a task force to examine the law in the wake of Mr. Martin’s death. The panel concluded that no changes were needed, but left open the possibility that the law could be amended. Prosecutors and police officers have long disliked the law, which they say is vague, gives judges too much power to decide cases and has been misused by criminals to avoid prosecution.

The law was not a factor in Mr. Zimmerman’s defense. His lawyers built his case around classic self-defense. But the law was part of the jury’s instructions and played a role in the way the police approached the initial investigation of Mr. Martin’s shooting.

Despite that, state Democrats said the law created a Wild West atmosphere in Florida, where some people feel that they can kill with impunity.

“This is not about gun control, it’s about self-control,” said State Representative Alan B. Williams, a Democrat.

Self-defense laws are at the forefront of the Dream Defenders’ campaign, but they have set their sights on other issues as well. They are hoping to pressure the Legislature and local school districts to do away with zero-tolerance policies in schools that lead to a high number of suspensions and expulsions. This policy has helped push out black teenagers, creating a “pipeline to prison,” they said.

As they clustered outside the governor’s office last week, the students said they might lack financing for their cause but not patience, drawing inspiration from the civil rights movement.

Mr. Martin’s death has inspired a new generation and a new protest movement, they said. It has also set off a new realization: minorities have come far, but not nearly far enough. As connected as people are today, the gap between black and white and rich and poor is vast, they said.

Brittany Claybrooks, 22, who was born in Detroit to a mother addicted to drugs, said she had seen both sides of the divide. After being suspended and expelled for pushing a teacher, she had an epiphany, she told the gathered students. She straightened herself out and focused, with laserlike vision, on getting back into the private school that had kicked her out. The public schools in her area had failed most of her friends, she said.

If she had not done so, she risked looking like “someone who wouldn’t make it, someone who would do as expected: not graduate, go on welfare, have two or three kids,” said Ms. Claybrooks, a senior at Florida A&M.

But epiphanies are rare, she said, which is why she joined Dream Defenders. The students snapped their fingers in agreement.

As night approached, more than three dozen people hauled out foam mattresses and sleeping bags, setting them up in the rotunda down the corridor from the governor’s office. At 5 p.m., the doors were locked, and they were alone. Their ritual began. They chanted and jumped and got charged up for the next day. “I believe that we will win!” they shouted. “I believe that we will win!”

Reinforcements would arrive soon in this college town — students streaming back after the summer break.

“We are a movement,” said Curtis Hierro, the Dream Defenders’ field director, “for a new generation.”

Christine Jordan Sexton contributed reporting.

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