Our struggle has just begun

August 27, 2013

Antiracist activists who have been occupying the Florida state Capitol in the wake of the not-guilty verdict for Trayvon Martin's murderer, George Zimmerman, ended their action on August 15 with a press conference and rally to discuss what comes next in the struggle.

The Dream Defenders, made up of students from around Florida, began the occupation on July 16 by marching into the Capitol to demand a special session of the legislature to pass Trayvon's Law. The activists made Trayvon's Law about three pillars: repeal of Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, confronting racial profiling, and dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline.

Lauren Byers, a member of the Dream Defenders and the International Socialist Organization, reports from Tallahassee now that the occupation has ended--and discusses what's ahead in the the fight against racism and criminalization in the state of Florida.

THE DREAM Defenders ended their month-long occupation of the Florida state Capitol in Tallahassee on August 15 with a press conference that included civil rights legend and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee founder Julian Bond.

Organizers made it clear that this isn't the end but the beginning of a new phase in the fight against racism in the state of Florida. As Bond said, "You're ending a protest because you've started a movement."

The occupation, which lasted 30 nights and 31 days, was the longest occupation of the Capitol in Florida's history. However, breaking that record was just the tip of the iceberg. While occupiers were unable to convince Gov. Rick Scott to call a special session to discuss Trayvon's Law, they were able to get a legislative poll taken for the first time in the state's history.

The protesters convinced some 32 legislators to ask for a special session in writing, which by state law triggered an official poll of the entire 160-member Florida legislature. Unfortunately, the Republican-dominated legislature voted against the special session.

Dream Defenders occupying the Florida Capitol
Dream Defenders occupying the Florida Capitol

During the course of the occupation, the Dream Defenders also:

-- Secured a meeting with Gov. Scott on day three of the occupation.

Pressured Speaker of the House Will Weatherford to call for a subcommittee to host hearings for "Stand Your Ground" in the fall.

Met with the heads of the Florida Department of Education and the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice to discuss "zero tolerance" school policies.

Convinced the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to agreed to discuss racial profiling policies, where Defenders will have the opportunity to bring experts in the field to testify before the department.

Forced a national dialogue in mainstream media around the three pillars of Trayvon's Law (Stand Your Ground law, school-to-prison pipeline and racial profiling).

At the press conference, the Dream Defenders also announced their goal of registering 61,550 voters--the voter margin by which Rick Scott was elected.

However, Scott isn't the only elected official who has made the Dream Defenders' target list for eviction. So, too, will the overwhelming majority of elected officials from both major parties who voted against the call for a special session in the legislative poll.

And in case words weren't enough to strike fear into elected officials, at the end of the press conference, activists marched from the Capitol building onto Gov. Scott's mansion down the street to deliver an eviction notice in person.

FOR THE next phase in their movement, the Dream Defenders are planning a multifaceted approach in order to build a united organized resistance to racism in Florida.

This fall, youth organizers across the state will return to their communities and continue to build locally, bringing with them their experience and knowledge gained during the occupation. LaQuinta Alexander, a student organizer in Tallahassee, said during the press conference:

The support we have garnered has propelled us to the gains we are celebrating today, but we cannot rest until we have changed the reality for young people in Florida. As we leave the Capitol, we are not leaving the fight. I'm looking forward to returning to my campus and the Tallahassee community to continue to build momentum for Trayvon's Law and the movement to end the criminalization of young people of color in Florida and across the nation.

As we return to our campuses and communities, we will be organizing to bring awareness to our criminal injustice system and encourage people to take action.

The eight established Dream Defender chapters across the state will hit the ground running this fall. On a local level, chapters will engage in various struggles against the criminalization of people of color and the working poor, whether around the three components of Trayvon's Law, prison divestment or student-worker alliances.

In preparation for the next legislative session in March 2012, activists are planning to continue to organize efforts to pressure elected officials to supporter Trayvon's Law and evict Gov. Scott and other officials like him.

The next major statewide mobilization to Tallahassee is set for September 23, the opening of committee week, which is when the House subcommittee is scheduled to hold hearings on Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law.

The month-long act of civil disobedience and its victories sent a message that reverberated across the globe. As Phillip Agnew pointed out:

We have engaged youth, we have engaged young people in a dialogue about what it means to fight for power. There are a number of definitions for power. A scientist may say that power is the ability to move the ability to act. An organizer may say that power is organized people and organized money. A Black man in the '60s may say that power is the ability to define phenomena and make it act in a desired manner.

And we came here to sit on the floor, because no matter how you define power, we knew that in the state of Florida, we had none. And so we came here on the morning of July 16 with a very simple goal. Not just to pass Trayvon's Law, but to show you what democracy looks like...and what it looks like to build power from the bottom up.

During their stay, youth organizers established a political and cultural hub at the Capitol unfamiliar to staff who occupy the building year round. The broader community mobilized across the state and even the country with visits from high-profile social activists like Harry Belafonte, Julian Bond and Jesse Jackson.

Hip-hop ciphers with Talib Kweli echoed in the halls and live art by Florida artist Martin Resse lined the walls of the Capitol. Educational workshops in Gov. Rick Scott's office varied in topics from Black liberation, the LGBTQ struggle to immigration and deportation.

For many student activists, the occupation was their first opportunity to facilitate meetings, organize events and speak in public. The political and cultural environment created at the Capitol in less than a month epitomized the ultimate goal of the Dream Defenders--to build an organized and educated resistance of youth.

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