Dream Defenders: Leaving The Capitol, Not The Fight

Terrance Heath

After a 31-day sit-in that inspired millions and got the attention of Florida lawmakers, the Dream Defenders have ended their occupation of the Florida state capitol. But don’t think for a minute that they are going away.

As others took to the street to protest the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin, a group of young activists calling themselves the Dream Defenders took their protest to the Florida’s halls of power. On July 16, taking a page from the old civil rights movement playbook, the Dream Defenders staged a sit-in right in Gov. Rick Scott’s office. Chief among their demands – which included an end to racial profiling and the school-to-prison pipeline for youth of color – was an end to Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which became a focus of national attention in the aftermath the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

Florida became the first state to adopt a “Stand Your Ground” law, which changed the legal definition of self-defense by removing the “duty to retreat” for citizens who feel they are in immanent danger or facing deadly force. Citizens no longer had a responsibility to try to either extricate themselves from or otherwise extinguish conflicts before resorting to deadly force in their own defense.

In 2005, Florida lawmakers voted that citizens had “no duty to retreat,” but could resort to deadly force based on nothing more than whether they feel threatened or “reasonably believe” they are are mortal danger. Of course, that’s only if one is “not engaged in an unlawful activity” and is “attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be.” For example, if one is stalked and confronted by a stranger while walking home one evening.

The law passed 39-0 in the Florida State senate, and 94-20 in the state house, and was quickly signed by then Gov. Jeb Bush. Florida was first, but with a lot of help from ALEC and the National Rifle Association other states soon followed. At present, more than 30 states have laws pretty much the same as Florida’s.

Map of Stand your Ground Laws

The combination of Republican-dominated state legislatures and backing from deep-pocketed groups like ALEC and the NRA is part of what makes “Stand Your Ground” laws so hard to repeal. And, let’s face it, repealing Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” was always going to be an uphill battle. Not only is Florida the birthplace of “Stand Your Ground” but the state legislature is still dominated by the same Republicans who helped it pass by such wide margins in the first place.

That’s why it’s remarkable that the Dream Defenders’ efforts yielded as much as they did. Largely by making themselves impossible to ignore, the Dream Defenders scored a meeting with governor Rick Scott. And while the meeting didn’t result in Scott calling for a special session to vote on repealing the “Stand Your Ground” law, the Dream Defenders earned themselves some political credibility, which only increased when they used their time to draft their own legislation called “Trayvon’s Law,” and even held a mock special session in the capitol.

The Dream Defenders haven’t lost any credibility in leaving the capitol, either. After all, they finally got the hearing they wanted. The Dream Defenders got their biggest concession yet from Florida’s Republican leaders when the speaker of Florida’s House, Will Weatherford, announced that the House would hold hearings on the “Stand Your Ground” law this fall. While there’s no set date or length for the hearings, that they will be held at all is a huge victory.

To paraphrase what Julian Bond said, as he stood with the young people when they announced the end of their sit-in, the Dream Defenders came to the capitol as a protest group, but they are leaving a full-fledged movement. The groups next move will be a targeted voter registration drive. Their goal is to register 61,500 voters, which represents Rick Scott’s margin of victory. And just to make it clear, as they left the capitol the group stopped to deliver an “eviction notice’ to Scott.

When the Dream Defenders came to the Florida state capitol, they vowed to stay “as long as it takes” to get hearing from state lawmakers on the “Stand Your Ground” law. Having achieved that, the Dream Defenders leave the capitol to fight “as long as it takes” to ensure that Trayvon Martin did not die in vain and that others won’t have to die as he did.

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