While many pundits anticipated riots if George Zimmerman was acquitted on charges of murdering Trayvon Martin, that first response was a series of peaceful yet forceful protests in cities including Oakland, Chicago, and New York.
“Understand that we’re young and we’re in a different time from past civil rights movements.”
Now, less than a week later, a more sustained answer to the verdict is taking shape in Florida’s capitol building in Tallahassee, Florida.
The occupation of the capitol began on Monday, July 15, when a crowd of people began to gather just outside the doors to the office of Florida governor Rick Scott. The protestors—most of them affiliated with a group called Dream Defenders, which originally formed in response to Martin’s killing—are demanding a meeting with Scott, says Melanie Andrade, a member of the group who spoke from Tallahassee. They want the governor to convene a special legislative session to address injustices revealed by the Zimmerman acquittal, she says.
Andrade says she knows that special legislative sessions get called "only when the state is in a state of emergency."
But she says that the current situation qualifies.
"I’m a black woman and I’m 21 years old," she said. "I’m in a state of emergency. The state of Florida is in a state of emergency because the verdict proves that this state doesn’t value the lives of black and brown children. If a grown man is allowed to use a gun against a person he’s afraid of, how am I supposed to defend myself against that?"
The protestors want the special session to take up what they call the "Trayvon Martin Civil Rights Act," which would include legislation to change policy around racial profiling and the "school-to-prison pipeline," as well as repealing the state’s Stand Your Ground law, which allows a person to shoot and kill another if they feel their life is in danger.
Governor Scott was in New York on Monday, but when security guards told the protestors that they needed to lock the gates at five o’clock on Monday afternoon, they did not clear out. Fifteen stayed inside and spent the night engaged in an intense mix of discussion, planning, and—eventually—sleep.
The next day, more supporters arrived from other cities, including Miami, Gainesville, and Jacksonville. They range in age from 17 to 48, according to Daniel Agnew, who has been sleeping in the capitol since Monday night. And when it came time to lock the gates on Tuesday, 35 people decided to stay overnight—more than twice as many as on the night before. On Wednesday night, again, 35 people remained. Agnew expects that number to grow over the next few days.
A big part of what’s going on is communication about the experience of racism.
"The normal amount of sleep for any individual here is around two hours," Agnew said. "And it’s a beautiful thing because we’re learning every day. We analyze what happened that day, and we continue to grow as we do it."
Agnew points to the example of social media. Once the group realized that their story was spreading on Twitter and Facebook, he said, they developed a team to keep their followers posted on what’s happening inside the capitol building, using Twitter hashtags such as #takeovertuesday and #wakeupwednesday.
But nights in the building aren’t just about strategy. A big part of what’s going on is communication about the experience of racism. "Every night when the doors close," Agnew said, "we have one-on-ones with new faces that we don’t know. We hear the injustices and the racial profiling. It fuels our flames."
More established groups are stepping in to support the demonstrators including Tallahassee’s New Jerusalem Baptist Church and the Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church. Representatives from Dream Defenders have also met with the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Council and the Urban League.
If that mix of organizations sounds reminiscent of earlier civil rights struggles, Agnew says it’s not that simple. "Understand that we’re young and we’re in a different time from past civil rights movements," he said. "It’s not a white and black thing. It’s not a male and female thing. We have old young, white, black, gay, straight. We can be cool. We’re not just these stern individuals."
And support for the action isn’t just coming from churches and organizations, either. Supporters from as far away as Australia are ordering supplies such as pizza, sandwiches, and personal hygiene items for the protestors. These are coming in so quickly that the group can’t use them all, and the excess is being delivered to a local homeless shelter.
If that part of the story might sounds reminiscent of Zuccotti Park during Occupy’s heyday, again, participants in the action say it’s not that simple.
"It’s more inclusive, if anything," Andrade says. "We’re trying to have an intergenerational multiracial space where people from different ethnicities, generations, and genders can feel safe in the same room talking about the school-to-prison pipeline and the war on youth and how racial profiling affects them."
Governor Scott has made no appearances at the capitol since the occupation began. His schedule, which has been widely circulated on social media, shows him in the Gulf Coast cities of Tampa and Bradenton today. And when the NAACP sent him a letter requesting that he "immediately" return to the state capital and address the anger over the Zimmerman verdict, Scott’s response included no promise to meet with the protestors.
Andrade says she expects to remain in the capitol building at least throughout the weekend and perhaps longer.