Creating a culture of change in the Capitol

The Dream Defenders began their occupation of the Florida Capitol on July 16 to demand that Gov. Rick Scott call a special legislative session to discuss the issues of racial injustice raised by the killing of Black teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla.--and the not-guilty verdict for his murderer, George Zimmerman.

Among the Dream Defenders' demands is the repeal of "Stand Your Ground," the law that protects killers like Zimmerman by giving a legal veneer to their claims of acting in self-defense. Other demands include repealing zero-tolerance laws in schools and banning the use of racial profiling by law enforcement. Since the occupation began, many supporters--including well-known figures like singer and activist Harry Belafonte and hip-hop artist Talib Kweli--have traveled to Tallahassee to show their support.

When the governor refused to call a special session, the Dream Defenders decided to hold their own People's Session, complete with testimony about racial profiling and the school-to-prison pipeline. "Florida is in a state of emergency," Dream Defender Executive Director Phillip Agnew said in a statement. "In failing to recognize the gravity of the need for change in this moment, Governor Scott is not exercising real leadership. So we'll do it for him."

Trenton Brooks is a Dream Defender and member of the International Socialist Organization at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Here, he writes about his experiences during the occupation in Tallahassee.

Dream Defenders speak with farmworkers and other activists during a "people's session" in the Capitol (Dream Defenders)Dream Defenders speak with farmworkers and other activists during a "people's session" in the Capitol (Dream Defenders)

WHAT WOULD possess an organization of mostly college students to occupy the Florida Capitol during the summer while Panama Beach is within arm's reach? It is the hurt, pain, anger and frustration at our criminal justice system.

As we approached week four of our occupation, what were once tears on the ground have become acid rain drops of resistance. The Dream Defenders at the Capitol are no longer sitting around classrooms and barbershops, talking among peers about the injustices of this nation. Instead, they are creating a culture of change.

When asked about her experience at the Capitol, Pat McCollough said, "I am inspired by the young people's movement. It started with the youth and their knowledge of their history." No longer will Black, Brown and poor youth be murdered with impunity in this nation and in this state without a pushback from the friends, family and community members affected by these bigoted laws.

I have spent three days at the Capitol as of today, and each time I go comes with a new fire being set under my behind to continue striding forward ever, and backward never. The people I have met range from 3 and 4-year-olds with their parents and guardians, to elders who took part in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s and '70s. I have met people from all walks of life, from Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Washington, D.C., and Georgia, just to name a few.

James Bryan Davis, a Florida native, described his experience of the Capitol:

One thing that kept coming to my mind was a quote from Tupac Shakur, "We don't need any more rappers, ballplayers or actors. We need thinkers because thoughts turn into action," and that's exactly what I felt at the Capitol that day.

Free-thinking people turning their thoughts and emotions into motion. I was one among like-minded individuals, and we were acting on behalf of true feelings and directing those feelings to this just cause.

The things that all these individuals have in common however, is the basic understanding that the system is broken, schools are closing and the prisons are open, and every day, it's Black, Brown and poor people who are being affected.

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INSIDE THE Capitol, it might seem as though there would be nothing left to do after three-plus weeks of our "Dream-in." On the contrary, the people involved have found the most creative ways to stay productive and busy.

There is a constant livestream video, planning meetings, grounding sessions and relationship-building opportunities. The Dream Defenders have exercises called the "fish bowl," in which three people sit in a circle and express their personal connection with certain topics, such as racial profiling, mistreatment by police officers, a history in activism, etc.

Along with keeping the mode of production going, we are also having a lot of fun. Yeah, I said it: fun in the governor's office!

To truly understand the Dream Defenders, one must understand that we operate with the mind frame of protecting the ones we love. We are not there for the notoriety or to be interviewed. We are not there for the pictures. We are there to save the lives of our people--and by our people, I mean the entire human race.

One thing that has come up a lot at the Capitol is the fact that this is not a civil rights issue--it is a human rights issue. To ask to be treated civilly is to say: just cope with us. The time of coping passed a long time ago. We want human rights.

One of the songs we sing at the Capitol goes like this: "Until the killing of Black men and Black mother's sons / Is as important as the killing of white men and white mother's sons / We who believe in freedom cannot rest."

That saying was as true in the 1950s in Money, Miss., as it is now in Sanford, Fla., or Oakland, Calif., or Chicago, Ill. Our opponents would like us to think that we all have different enemies. Blacks should fight whites, woman should fight men, LGBTQ should fight straights. Yet with a little research, all of these individual groups will come to the conclusion that we are all fighting the same beast.

When asked about her experience at the Capitol, Pat McCollough replied, "What impressed me the most was how organized and inclusive they were. Everyone was treated equally, and everyone who came was welcomed." James Bryan Davis' testimony that day proved no different:

As a free-thinking youth, I have always felt an outcast in this imperialist society because of my open-mindedness. These are the conditions they have force-fed me my entire life. Lo and behold, when I went to the Capitol, I felt the love, unity and comradery of my fellow peers.

That is the most important thing that we, the Dream Defenders, are doing. We are breaking down the papier-mache walls built between us to help create a united consciousness.