For 17 days and nights, college-aged activists calling themselves the Dream Defenders have camped at Florida Governor Rick Scott’s office, pledging to eat, sleep and protest there until he meets their demands.
The group has used debate over the shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin -- and the acquittal of his killer last month -- to push for policies that include outlawing racial profiling and repealing Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which allows deadly force in self-defense outside the home.
The sit-in at the Tallahassee statehouse, the longest-running in recent Florida history, follows demonstrations in the capitals of North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin over Republican-backed policies. The Florida protesters, mostly black and Hispanic college students, have made it a mission to target Scott, a 60-year-old Republican who polls show is vulnerable in his 2014 re-election bid.
“The pressure is on him because he’s a year and a few months away from being able to be re-elected,” said Melanie Andrade, 21, president of the Dream Defenders chapter at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. The protest “is going to make him look bad, because we have national and international attention.”
Wearing a T-shirt that read “The World is Ours” under a sleeveless leather motorcycle jacket, she said: “At some point, he’s going to be forced to act.”
Scott met with the group two weeks ago, and rejected their request for a special session of the legislature, which isn’t scheduled to convene again until March. Instead, the governor declared a day of prayer.
“The Stand Your Ground law should stay on the books,” Scott told the protesters.
Demonstrations in other capitals haven’t swayed lawmakers and governors.
In North Carolina, protests every Monday have denounced a Republican agenda that included regulations on abortion providers, voting restrictions and cuts to unemployment benefits. In Texas, protests began in June seeking to prevent abortion restrictions that were later adopted.
In Wisconsin, labor advocates calling themselves the Solidarity Singers have been coming to the Capitol in Madison nearly every weekday since Governor Scott Walker curbed collective-bargaining rights for public unions in 2011.
Partisanship has meant heightened unrest, said Rory McVeigh, director of the Center for the Study of Social Movements at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
“There’s been quite a bit of frustration with stalemates in politics and things not being done,” he said. “That helps encourage people to take it to the streets.”
The Dream Defenders, whose occupation has ranged from about a dozen protesters to more than 200, said they can sustain it for months. Singer Harry Belafonte and civil-rights activist Jesse Jackson Sr. joined them to rally support. Musician Stevie Wonder said he wouldn’t perform in Florida until the state changes the Stand Your Ground law.
The students, many on summer break, have settled in, stockpiling pillows, blankets and food. They’ve set up shop in the reception area outside Scott’s office, crowding onto antique couches and chairs during the day. They organize strategy sessions, host discussions on race and stage poetry slams.
At night, they sleep on mats covering marble floors in the corridor just outside the reception area.
The Scott administration has allowed them to remain even when the office is closed. The governor has avoided his Capitol office since the protest began.
The group formed last year after Martin was shot dead in Sanford, a city of 54,000 about 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Orlando. The shooter, George Zimmerman, claimed self-defense and initially was not charged with a crime. The group re-emerged last month when a jury acquitted Zimmerman in a murder trial that sparked a national debate over race.
The jury considered Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which grants immunity to people who use deadly force to respond to the threat of bodily harm. Stand Your Ground was first introduced in Florida in 2005 and has spread to more than two dozen states with the help of the National Rifle Association.
President Barack Obama last month said it would be “useful” to examine Stand Your Ground laws that he said may encourage confrontations.
Leaders of the 16-month-old Dream Defenders are organizing “Freedom Rides” to bring in additional protesters from New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta to push the cause.
“Florida’s youth, specifically black, brown and poor youth, are in a state of crisis,” said Phillip Agnew, executive director of Dream Defenders, at a July 23 news conference at the Capitol. “Young people are dying, no matter their color, and the governor of Florida has remained silent.”
The students threaten to hound Scott with demonstrations and criticism at a critical time. Scott has battled low approval ratings since he was elected in 2010, and a June poll of likely voters by Quinnipiac University found him trailing potential opponents by at least 10 percentage points.
The Dream Defenders are pushing lawmakers to pass a measure called Trayvon’s Law that would repeal Stand Your Ground, ban racial profiling by law enforcement and end strict discipline policies that send thousands of public-school students to prison.
Law-enforcement officials have opted against arresting the protesters as long as they remain peaceful. They say security costs have climbed above $200,000, with much coming in the form of overtime pay for Capitol police officers.
Some lawmakers say they’re growing impatient.
State Representative Dennis Baxley, a Republican from Ocala who sponsored the Stand Your Ground law in 2005, said it’s time for the demonstration to end.
“They have been heard and they have been responded to,” he said. “They should stop creating an unbudgeted expense for the taxpayers of Florida.”
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