As nationwide protests erupted this July after a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman of murdering Trayvon Martin, President Obama asked Americans to exercise “calm reflection” and reminded demonstrators that “we are a nation of laws.” But a group of young organizers in Florida decided that the moment instead called for civil disobedience to challenge unjust laws, and proceeded to hold a 31-day sit-in at the state Capitol in Tallahassee.
The Dream Defenders, formed in the aftermath of 17-year-old Martin’s killing last year, have chapters on 7 college campuses across Florida. The group, whose name alludes to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous speech at the 1963 March on Washington, aims to address the structural problems at the heart of the Martin case: the criminalization of people of color, police brutality and mass incarceration — all of which add up to a system law professor Michelle Alexander calls “the new Jim Crow.”
On July 16, the activists launched an occupation of the Florida Capitol, demanding that Gov. Rick Scott ® convene a special session of the legislature to reform Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which figured prominently in the Martin case. During their sit-in, the Dream Defenders announced their support for Trayvon’s Law, drafted by the NAACP, which would repeal Stand Your Ground altogether. Trayvon’s Law would also curtail racial profiling by police through an independent civilian complaint review board with the power to discipline offending police officers and ban the “zero tolerance” policies that fuel the school-to-prison pipeline.
Though no special session was convened, by the time the sit-in ended, on August 15, they had met with the governor, several top-level state officials had agreed to talk with them, and Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford had committed to hold hearings on Trayvon’s Law this fall.
The youth organizers also won the support of veteran civil rights leaders Julian Bond and Harry Belafonte, and helped revive the call for a new, national civil rights movement harnessing the power of nonviolent direct action. As Bond told the young activists as they left the Capitol, “You’re ending a protest because you’ve started a movement.”
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Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State College in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.