Protesters At Florida Capitol: ‘We Stay Until We Win’

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Above: Melanie Andrade, president of the Dream Defenders chapter at FAMU, describes her personal experiences with racial profiling during a Tuesday news conference. Steven Pargett / Dream Defenders

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.

This photo, taken by one of the Dream Defenders, shows director Phillip Agnew leading a news conference that was broadcast on the web. Steven Pargett / Dream Defenders

This photo, taken by one of the Dream Defenders, shows director Phillip Agnew leading a news conference that was broadcast on the web. Steven Pargett / Dream Defenders

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.

Photos taken by a fellow protester show Dream Defenders co-founder Gabriel Pendas leading a strategy session in the waiting area outside Gov. Rick Scott's office. Steven Pargett / Dream Defenders

Photos taken by a fellow protester show Dream Defenders co-founder Gabriel Pendas leading a strategy session in the waiting area outside Gov. Rick Scott’s office. Steven Pargett / Dream Defenders

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.

Jabari Mickles, a member of the Dream Defenders FAMU chapter, was among the student activists who took to social media Tuesday to spread the word about the occupation, which has been going on for more than a week. Steven Pargett / Dream Defenders

Jabari Mickles, a member of the Dream Defenders FAMU chapter, was among the student activists who took to social media Tuesday to spread the word about the occupation, which has been going on for more than a week. Steven Pargett / Dream Defenders

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.