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Dream Defenders: We're Dug In; 'We Have a Blueprint'

July 29, 2013 - 6:00pm

A compact core of Dream Defenders, still staked out inside the Florida Capitol, maintain they're on a mission driven by the spirit of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott of 1955.

And lawmakers, they say, would best be served by meeting their demands, convening in special session and reconsidering the state's "unjust" Stand Your Ground law.

"It's the same in spirit as the Montgomery bus boycott," said 19-year-old Tallahassee resident Sophia Ballard, who compiles data for the Dream Defenders. "We want to end the injustice. We are willing to work hard, we are willing to make sacrifices ..."

A trimmed-down group of about 15 Dream Defenders, hoping to waylay the governor returning to his office Monday, instead confronted Rep. Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello. Beshears told protesters he wasn't sent by the governor to placate them, he genuinely wanted to convey his thoughts on Stand Your Ground. Beshears said the law isn't perfect, and he hopes to revisit it in 2014, but basically, it's a good law.

The Dream Defenders' campaign did not start to take shape until after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager from Miami who was walking back to his father's home, whom he was visiting in Sanford.

The Florida organization cobbled together a three-day, 40-mile march to Sanford in the name of Trayvon Martin and rallied for justice back in March 2012. The idea was to begin the campaign with a rally just to show their concern and support, for those who needed a peaceful way of venting their anger and frustration.

"It was after that march," said Dream Defenders Executive Director Phillip Agnew, "that we got together in Sanford, and met at a church with the community members." The real fear then as now, he said, is that Trayvon Martin wasn't the first unarmed black citizen killed and probably wouldn't be the last.

"I have done Occupy (Wall Street)," said Steven Pargett, communications director for the Dream Defenders. "I have worked with campus student organizations, worked with labor (unions) and worked with a law group, but nothing brings it together like Dream Defenders."

In 1955, the difference was that young black ministers and community leaders in Montgomery formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). They were the first of their kind, an organization based in the Deep South that specifically adopted a direct-action strategy to challenge racial discrimination.

Under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr., the MIA was instrumental in guiding the Montgomery bus boycott, a successful campaign that lasted for a total of 381 days and focused national attention on racial segregation in the South.

"That whole movement had to come up against dogs getting put on crowds. I don't think now it would be acceptable in any way," said Ballard. "I don't think anyone would think it is OK. Regardless of someones race, if people were to see a little girl get attacked by a cop dog, I think there would be a lot more action."

Said Agnew, "We've got people from all over and they are not scared to speak up. We've got a plan to stay out here as long as we need to, and I think they are seeing that now."

As the MIA pulled together with a plan, so has the Dream Defenders -- but with a much younger crowd and with advanced tools.

"Its a new generation rising, and the politicians are seeing it slowly, but surely," said Agnew about the type of campaign he is leading. "Having young people here is really energetic for us to see their energy, their organization and to see their passion for this work.

"Young people can do this better then anyone else," he said.

Agnew admitted he couldn't truly compare the Dream Defenders with the MIA of 58 years ago. "They are legendary compared to us," he said.

"We have a lot more work to do, and a lot more movement to build. They were doing this during a lot harder times.

"They were going into territory, places and communities where there were literal threats of being punched in the face or hit with a pipe, or attacked by a dog or hose.

"Our young children are courageous," Agnew said, "but to compare ourselves to them, they were doing stuff in hostile territory. We have some sense of crisis and urgency right now."

Pargett, a Los Angeles native, said activists, organizers and organizations say the time is now for change. "Nobody knows what we need to do like us," he said. "We are the cutting age of thought in the universe right now. "We can be guided by, and learn a lot from, the wisdom of the past in terms of creating a vision for what the future should look like, but nobody can do that like we can."

Agnew clarified the point: "We have a blueprint and this is one part of it. I think it is time for young people to realize that."

Then he spoke directly to elected officials on all levels of government: "I want something better. Either you tell me how you are going to build it as my elected official, or I am going to remove you ... you won't have the benefit of my vote.

"And, I think it's time for young people to say that."

"For a lot of people, this may be their first time just hearing about Dream Defenders, but we have been building for over a year and a half now," said Communications Director Pargett.

"One of the things we're going to be doing now and in the future is a program called Youth on Change," he explained, "which basically is an organizer program for high school and middle school youth that gives them all the tools and teaches them about their power and teaches them to be organizers so they can decide what they want to do and have the skills to go about achieving them.

"Everyone has the power," Pargett concluded, "but we just have to remind people, and when that happens, when people remember that they have power, a lot is going to happen."

Miami native Marcus Joseph, a Tallahassee freelance reporter and videographer, is a 2011 graduate of Florida A&M University. He served an internship at Sunshine State News in 2011.

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