Phillip Agnew, Dream Defender

Meet the new generation of civil rights leaders.

Michelle Chen January 19, 2015

Phillip Agnew, leader of the Dream Defenders, is among the young activists defining Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream for the 21st century. (Via YouTube/Dream Defenders)

Phillip Agnew isn’t try­ing to make his­to­ry; he’s just heed­ing its call. As the head of the Flori­da-based Dream Defend­ers, Agnew is one of many young civ­il rights lead­ers draw­ing from the rich lega­cy of black free­dom strug­gles while mov­ing into the 21st cen­tu­ry with a deft use of social media and some­times-scathing irony. (His group’s lat­est cam­paign pro­duced a faux-adver­tise­ment for kid-sized bul­let­proof vests.)

In five years, I’d like to see a good majority of states around this country closing jails, and police departments looking completely different—being governed by the people.

Dream Defend­ers was formed to com­bat racial vio­lence after Trayvon Mar­tin was gunned down in a Flori­da sub­urb in 2012. The group has mobi­lized com­mu­ni­ties nation­wide against racial pro­fil­ing, the school-to-prison pipeline and stand your ground” laws. In recent months, Dream Defend­ers has been ampli­fy­ing the #Black­Lives­Mat­ter cam­paign that explod­ed in the wake of the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Gar­ner. Agnew was among a hand­ful of young activists invit­ed to the White House on Decem­ber 1, 2014, to meet with Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma and Attor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Hold­er about the Fer­gu­son protests.

But Agnew and his team don’t let their high pro­file go to their heads; the group is still very much a grass­roots oper­a­tion. Agnew spoke with In These Times about plans for 2015 and the chal­lenges of orga­niz­ing in a dig­i­tal age while wrestling with gen­er­a­tions-old dilem­mas, like the mean­ing of nonviolence.

#Black­Lives­Mat­ter protests have been going on for more than a month now; have you had time to take stock?

I’m excit­ed because it seems peo­ple are wak­ing up — peo­ple from low- and mid­dle-income com­mu­ni­ties, peo­ple who have typ­i­cal­ly been in the mar­gins, who weren’t part of orga­ni­za­tions. When we first start­ed mobi­liz­ing in 2012, I could have nev­er imag­ined things would have hap­pened this quick­ly. On the oth­er hand, this real­ly is some­thing that, if you look back at his­to­ry, was easy to pre­dict. You have police who do not come from the com­mu­ni­ty and have a cul­ture of con­tempt for black and brown peo­ple, espe­cial­ly when they’re young and poor. You have com­mu­ni­ties with no say in the way their lives are lived, no edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties, no jobs that will make ends meet. And you have ram­pant and grow­ing explo­sions between police and the peo­ple that they’re sup­posed to pro­tect. This is a recipe for dis­as­ter. This is 1967. This is 1968, when cities around the coun­try, includ­ing Chica­go, Newark, Detroit, Oak­land and Watts, began to explode.

Do you feel like this move­ment also owes a cre­ative debt to Occupy?

This is part of a pro­gres­sion of resis­tance to eco­nom­ic sys­tems and social sys­tems that stamp out peo­ple who are black, brown, oppressed, poor. And Occu­py was a big moment. It shift­ed the par­a­digm to the 99% vs. the 1%, and that’s now in the lex­i­con of the new gen­er­a­tion that didn’t real­ly have that analy­sis before. Before, it was just black peo­ple vs. white peo­ple.” I’m not a defend­er of Occu­py, unequiv­o­cal­ly. Occu­py was a lot of white peo­ple. We get that. An impor­tant shift in the con­scious­ness would be to say, You know what? It is about race, because race is a means for cap­i­tal­ism to flour­ish in this coun­try. If we can lib­er­ate black peo­ple, then the very con­nec­tive tis­sues of oppres­sion in this coun­try are torn asun­der. And in order to do that, we need to real­ize that this sys­tem also affects white peo­ple … and pits us all against one another.”

The unini­ti­at­ed may watch the news and say, This is about police bru­tal­i­ty,” which can be solved with train­ing or body cam­eras. How would you explain the broad­er issues of state vio­lence and oppres­sion at stake here?

What I pic­ture when you bring up that argu­ment is a white lib­er­al — or maybe a black lib­er­al — who says, Yeah. I agree. We need to fix the police.” And that is true, the police need to be fixed. But also, their cul­ture of con­tempt needs to be erased, and com­mu­ni­ties need to be a part of that con­ver­sa­tion. The val­ues that our coun­try is sup­posed to be built on — equal oppor­tu­ni­ty for all, the abil­i­ty of all to rep­re­sent our val­ues at the bal­lot box — this coun­try has nev­er done that. What it has done, very suc­cess­ful­ly, is tak­en cer­tain peo­ple — based on their col­or, based on their eth­nic­i­ty, based on their immi­gra­tion sta­tus, based on their edu­ca­tion lev­el, based on their eco­nom­ic sta­tus — and said that those peo­ple are not wor­thy of the val­ues put on paper. The role of peo­ple in #Black­Lives­Mat­ter — the role of peo­ple who are angry about police, about the envi­ron­ment, about the econ­o­my — is to remind peo­ple that Amer­i­ca has some val­ues that it’s nev­er lived up to and that have nev­er applied to cer­tain peo­ple. We want to change that.

Dream Defend­ers is also vocal about edu­ca­tion. How is that relat­ed to racial violence?

I’ll start off with the reform frame, which is that we don’t need police offi­cers at school. Schools should be a whole­some envi­ron­ment where all stu­dents feel safe and receive qual­i­ty education.

And then there’s a rad­i­cal frame, which is where we want to get. It’s root­ed in the fact that the oppres­sor will nev­er give the oppressed the edu­ca­tion need­ed to over­throw the sys­tem. Our whole edu­ca­tion sys­tem doesn’t want you to think crit­i­cal­ly, to be cre­ative. We have a part­ner­ship now with Mia­mi-Dade Schools to help with civic and polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion and to pro­vide aca­d­e­m­ic sup­port. The goal is to give stu­dents a real­ly holis­tic view of the pos­si­bil­i­ties that are avail­able to them, with some real good civic and polit­i­cal involve­ment. [But ulti­mate­ly], the only way to move into the more rad­i­cal frame is to start our own school.

What do you say to peo­ple who think there’s a rift between gen­er­a­tions in the movement?

I think the ten­sion is played up on the nation­al scale with nation­al play­ers. But on the ground, peo­ple are work­ing with each oth­er. There’s always going to be some ten­sion, but that’s not what we talk about when we’re in our meet­ings. We talk about mov­ing for­ward. We can’t build or inno­vate with­out the blue­print, and the blue­print was writ­ten by the old­er gen­er­a­tions. What do you try to keep in mind when you talk to the pres­i­dent or oth­ers in pow­er? That no mat­ter if we’re meet­ing with the pres­i­dent or who­ev­er, they’re actu­al­ly not more impor­tant than peo­ple in our com­mu­ni­ty. We got­ta go back to our room togeth­er and face each oth­er and look each oth­er in the eye.

One of the most polar­iz­ing ques­tions that came out of Fer­gu­son was what defines a non­vi­o­lent protest. What do you think?

My thing is that the state doesn’t have the monop­oly on [defin­ing] what vio­lence is. The state is the most vio­lent enti­ty in the world. It’s up to us to decide what’s more impor­tant: the val­ue of life or the val­ue of prop­er­ty? The Dream Defend­ers focus on strate­gic non­vi­o­lence,” and by that we mean, in order to win, non­vi­o­lence is the way that we choose to oper­ate. But we’re still active­ly work­ing to define what it means. I have a lot to learn. This is the new gen­er­a­tion, the new way of doing things. The tra­di­tion­al means are not going to work. That doesn’t mean that we’re not reg­is­ter­ing vot­ers, knock­ing on doors, run­ning for office, offer­ing leg­is­la­tion, push­ing for pol­i­cy changes. We’re doing all of the above. We’re also going to take some actions that are going to dis­rupt people’s way of life, because we feel like our lives have been lived on pause.

How would you mea­sure suc­cess five years from now?

I want to see us move from protest to resis­tance to full rev­o­lu­tion. Con­struct­ing and build­ing our own econ­o­my and sys­tems and schools. I want to see com­mu­ni­ty con­trol of our food and [access] to food that enhances our bod­ies and our minds. And to see true self-deter­mi­na­tion for every per­son in this coun­try, and that does include white peo­ple. But it means bal­ance. Right now, black peo­ple, brown peo­ple, poor peo­ple don’t have any rights to their lives and their des­tinies. I’d like to see the gov­ern­ment not engage in wars where we per­pet­u­ate an eco­nom­ic sys­tem that ruins democ­ra­cy around the world. That’s not a five-year goal; that’s prob­a­bly a life­time goal. And I’d like to see the prison-indus­tri­al com­plex end. In five years, I’d like to see a good major­i­ty of states around this coun­try clos­ing jails, and police depart­ments look­ing com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent — being gov­erned by the people.

Where do you, per­son­al­ly, hope to be?

Alive.

Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH