On the night of Monday, July 15, members of a social justice group called Dream Defenders spent their first night on the hard marble floors of the state capitol building in Tallahassee, Fla. Last night, they spent their tenth night there. In the interviews that follow, three of them explain the most recent developments, their reasons for taking action, and what they hope to change.
”The capitol is the source of power that we need to change things.”
Dream Defenders originally formed in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., and the group had been hard at work throughout its first year building local chapters in cities like Gainesville, Orlando, and Jacksonville.
But after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Martin in February of 2012, the group went into what it calls a “state of emergency.” Drastic injustice called for drastic action, organizers with the group say, and that’s when they moved into the state’s capitol building, transforming it into a collective office, community organizing center, and temporary home.
Florida governor Rick Scott met with the Defenders last Thursday, but members of the group say they weren’t satisfied with the meeting. They vowed to continue their occupation until he calls a special legislative session to address the injustices that underlie the killing of Martin and the acquittal of Zimmerman.
Many of the Defenders spent last weekend locked inside the building, where they conducted marathon sessions in training, planning, and community building. There was even a church service with local pastors on Sunday.
After interviewing the Dream Defenders on several occasions, we at YES! decided to present their inimitable voices to you at length. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation with three of the group’s organizers: Daniel Agnew, Melanie Andrade, and Jabari Mickles. All three are camping out in the capitol building.
(Please click on the Soundcloud links below to hear these occupiers’ words in their own voices.)
Daniel Agnew, 24 years old
James Trimarco: Hi, Daniel. I’d like to hear a little bit about the weekend. You were inside the capitol building for a couple of days. What was that like?
Agnew: It was absolutely amazing, man. On Friday at 5:00, of course, they closed the doors on us. And throughout the weekend, nobody could come in, but everybody who was there had to stay in. We had 35 to 40 people stay the entire weekend with us. We did a lot of relational building and we did a lot of organizing for this coming weekend.
“Social injustice is going on in the state of Florida.”
It was incredible because on Saturday around 2:00, we had 30 to 40 people outside come support us and pretty much stay the entire day with us. They were pretty much camped outside and the only reason why they didn’t sleep outside was because it started to rain.
Trimarco: And so you guys were separated from them by a window. How did you interact with them through the window?
Agnew: We wrote signs and then we called some people that were outside. We introduced ourselves and they showed their support, and we started singing. So we had them on speakerphone and we let them lead some of the chants and some of our songs. And we started singing and talking. We had a mother and her daughter come from—I want to say North Carolina—and they drove down all the way here to support us. Then on Sunday we actually had a church service at the capitol.
Trimarco: Did you guys just hold it yourselves inside the capitol, then?
Agnew: A representative from the Democratic Party, he actually has access in and out. So he was able to have two ordained ministers come in and actually hold the service for us.
Trimarco: Dale Landry from the Tallahassee branch of the NAACP told me that he was interested in bringing some retired people in to join you guys for the weekend.
Agnew: It was two older ladies who actually slept in the weekend with us. It was two white ladies. And they actually stayed in all the way to Sunday. Of course it was very, very, very uncomfortable on the floor. But they held on and they stayed until Sunday with us.
Trimarco: What was it like camping out with some people from a different generation?
Agnew: Ah man, it’s amazing. They fuel our fire as well as us fueling theirs, although they were tired and fatigued. The weekend allows us to actually get to know each other on a more personal level. So they expressed their concerns with what’s going on in this system of ours, and vice-versa. So we pretty much fed off each other, and that’s what created the relationships that we have now with them.
Trimarco: I read on the Dream Defenders Twitter feed that the police have banned sleeping bags in the capitol building. Are there other problems that you’ve encountered?
Agnew: OK. So you know, [the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has] actually had some paperwork come out and they’re trying to make us look like we’re not here for a purpose and that we’re just young vigilantes, right?
So, they put out some statistics. And they were saying that it costs the state $97,000 to “house” us. And the security and the staff are getting hurt by this. Then we calculated the amount of money it takes daily to hold a special session, [which is the Dream Defenders’ main demand]. And it takes $35,000 a day to hold a special session of the legislature. And so we combat it with, “If you would work with us, we would have no reason to be here.” And they try to make reports and make out to the media that we’re just young and dumb.
Today we have an organization called PICO [coming], and they’re a faith-based organization, so it’s church leaders from around the nation who are coming and joining us, as well as a bus of 80 students from Boston, Washington, and one other state. They’re coming down on the bus and they’re pretty much gonna stay the weekend with us.
And then tomorrow—Harry Belafonte has personally been on the phone with us—and he’ll be out here tomorrow as well. We have a rally from 2:00 to 5:00. It’s gonna be huge. I’m excited to have my family coming out here as well. So it’s gonna be a really really big day, these next couple of days.
And most of the groups that are coming down will be staying the weekend, so our number pretty much doubled from last week.
Trimarco: How many people do you estimate are going stay over this weekend?
Agnew: This might be way less than what it really is, but I want to say a strong 80 people.
Trimarco: Now I’m going ask some questions that take it back to the beginning. So, give me a sketch of why you’re occupying the capitol.
Agnew: The capitol is the source of power that we need to change things. There has been a lot of protest. There has been a lot of sit-ins. There has been a lot of rallies. We’re not that. We do that but we’re not that. That doesn’t define us. We understand that we have to go right to the source of power and we have to fight with them in order to make real change. That’s why we’re at the state capitol, because that’s where things change.
Jabari Mickles, 20 years old
Trimarco: Hi, Jabari. How about you? What motivates you to occupy Florida’s capitol building?
Jabari Mickles: I’m doing this because I believe that Florida has been shown that they don’t really value the lives of our youth, with the school-to-prison pipeline and forcing our kids out of school and into drug programs or into house arrest. We think that takes our students and funnels them into prisons.
”Occupying this has made me believe that change is going to come because I understand that people in America care about their children.”
Then we have things like racial profiling, which, in a case like Trayvon’s, Zimmerman followed him. He had suspicions just because—let’s be real about it—Trayvon was black, in a neighborhood where Zimmerman hadn’t seen a lot of black people. He racially profiled him and he said it was because of the burglaries in the neighborhood but we know that Trayvon didn’t have anything on him. He had a sweet tea and Skittles.
And then we have things like Stand Your Ground, which allowed Zimmerman to get off because he said he was attacked by Trayvon. But we don’t believe Zimmerman was attacked. When you chase somebody down, they’re defending themselves. And then you shoot them in the chest because you’re in a fight that you started for no reason, based on your profiling.
So that’s the background here. Social injustice is going on in the state of Florida and black and brown young people are disproportionally penalized. We need change if we actually say we care about the future of Florida, and not just the future of people who have money.
Trimarco: What do you think are the most serious problems facing youth of color today?
Mickles: Just being criminalized. I think that’s the most serious problem. I think the most serious problems for black and brown people are systemic issues. We can’t say it’s drugs and everything like that—that’s victim-blaming. People are reacting to America’s justice system and America’s education system.
Trimarco: Has participating in this occupation changed the way that you look at this, or changed whether you think this change is going to happen?
Mickles: Yes. I definitely believe occupying this has made me believe that change is going to come because I understand that people in America care about their children. You know? People care about the education that they’re getting. We’re not asking for the country to change everything that it’s doing. We’re asking for the government of Florida to allow the people not just a chance to be heard, but a chance for action. You know? Let’s change the problems that we see here to make this state better. We want everyone to be improved in the state of Florida and in the nation.
And the capitol is a source of power because the governor works there. There’s official business going on all the time and we’re also creating business. We’re not just sitting there and texting and all. We are actually working to seed change and we’re working to be citizens of the state and help and allow our government the opportunity to use the citizens to help them create a change.
Melanie Andrade, 21 years old
Trimarco: Hi, Melanie. So, what motivated you to get involved in this?
Melanie Andrade: Originally, when Trayvon Martin was murdered, I would try to talk to people around about something as obvious as what happened with his murder and racial profiling. And these were people I loved and my best friends, I’ve known them for a long time. And they were just so disconnected. They would actually get mad at me for bringing it up. It was a really negative environment at this point. And I go to FAMU—that’s like one of the best historically black universities you can go to—and this is the mindset of people in my class.
”We need to be making the decisions and helping craft what a system that’s supposed to help us would look like.”
And then I just came back to school and my younger brother got arrested. He was 19. It was last summer. It was almost a year ago. But he got arrested and I was arguing with my mom because my mom said that he deserved to get arrested and he deserved to go to jail!
And then the next day I went to a Dream Defenders meeting. They were talking about real stuff. They were talking about the jail that my brother was in because they have minors in there, too. We don’t have juvenile detention centers there, so minors go to jail. My brother’s in a jail. He’s 19, but he’s at the same facility that the adults are put in. They get the same bars, the same treatment. And this is what we talked about at the meeting, the day after my brother got arrested.
So then there was all this energy. That was about a year ago. And ever since then, I’ve just been learning people’s stories and we’ve been organizing.
People think this popped up overnight over the verdict but this is something that we’ve been ready to do for a long time. We’ve been here the whole legislative session. On day one we delivered a state of the state address before Rick Scott delivered his. We’ve been here for a while. People think this is some random Stand Your Ground thing, but we started talking last November, last December.
Trimarco: Did you guys have a conversation where you talked about doing this if the verdict came out the way it did?
Andrade: Honestly, not really. We talked about, you know, the night of the verdict, some people wanted to go and be in Sanford, some people didn’t. But we never talked about like, “Well, what if he’s not guilty?”
I know we all knew it could happen, but I feel like we all felt like it wouldn’t because it was so obvious. It was so crazy that it happened the way it happened. So for people to say like, “His life was basically over because he had marijuana in his system,” like, he was a 17-year-old boy. People forget about that part. I have a brother so I’m not forgetting about that part. That freaks me out.
Trimarco: What do you think are the most serious problems facing black and brown youth today?
Andrade: The color of their skin. You know, the secretary of the department of juvenile justice came to meet us on day seven. And she was saying, we have these records, we have surveys, and we have certified papers that can take us forward. I don’t even know why the governor sent them, actually. I guess he has to do something. He has a lot of media attention on him right now. So we talked to them and the lady said, “We just need to figure out the types of kids. What are you all going through at home, and why is it like this?”
We need more than to be on a survey. We need to be making the decisions and helping craft what a system that’s supposed to help us would look like. Because at this point we’re in a state of emergency. This system is not helping us. She kept talking about Miami and civil citations. Miami is one of the most diverse places in Florida. I’m from Polk County. It’s way different from Miami, so what are you talking about? We don’t even have juvenile detention in Polk County. We’re way past that right now. They put kids in solitary confinement.
So she’s talking about Miami and these types of kids, all we need to do is do a survey, we can help them with focus groups. You can’t help them because you don’t know what they’re going through. As soon as people see their skin they’re already a problem to deal with, which is what you’re telling me right now, that each of my brothers are a type of person that needs to be dealt with. That’s basically what she told me, like, my 20-year-old brother and my 19-year-old brother. I have a problem with that.
Trimarco: So this is like the tenth day that a lot of people have been there. Has the occupation changed much over that time?
Andrade: Yeah. A lot of different things have changed. I think we—well, me personally—I wasn’t prepared for what exactly we were about to do. You’re talking about not really getting good sleep for a while. There’s bright lights that never go off. There’s marble floors. Some people fall asleep at like two in the morning and we have to wake up at 5:45 because the doors open at 7:00. And every single day security has gotten tougher and tougher. It’s to the point where yesterday at 5:00 pm, as soon as the doors closed, there’s probably like 60 of us and 17 or 18 of them. That’s been the most security we’ve had yet.
Trimarco: And those security stay there overnight?
Andrade: Yes. They stay there overnight so they’re actually getting paid time and a half. So I put out a blog on the Melissa Harris Perry blog. And I’ve seen a few comments, you know, from people saying like, “Those protesters, they’re using up our money. They’re costing the place more and now people are like they can’t eat because they’re working these long hours.” But that’s not necessarily the case. They have an excessive amount of police there and they’re not doing anything.
We can’t get mad at them. They’re just doing their jobs. But, as that’s changed, we have to change the way we take care of our space. We’ve had to assign more people to more roles to make sure things are covered. We make sure we know who’s at the capitol with us. I mean, the Democrats have been helping us. We asked the Republicans for help also. They don’t want to.
Trimarco: Did you say the Democrats are helping?
Andrade: I mean, they’re helping us as far as having a space upstairs to move our things to during business hours. We can’t have all our stuff out in the hall when the capitol’s open. Then, when they close we have to bring them all back down because then we can’t go downstairs.
Trimarco: So they’re providing some storage space.
Andrade: Yeah. [The media is] spinning it as though we’re being funded by them. But the fact of the matter is: We’re broke, we’re a year and four months old, and the Democrats happen to be the only black people who even function in the capitol.
Trimarco: So there’s been a decision to break people out into committees, I read. When did you guys make that decision?
Andrade: I would say this Monday is when we really started operating at an awesome capacity as far as people doing separate roles. I’m on the outreach team, so I’m constantly on the different campuses. We have three different campuses here in Tallahassee, so, going to campuses, talking to people who know what we’re talking about and who want to be a part of it.
I know a lot of media have been saying “Stand Your Ground Protestors,” but we’re still talking to people about racial profiling. We’re trying to make sure people don’t fall into the trap of thinking this is all about Stand Your Ground because Stand Your Ground isn’t what put the bullet in Trayvon. The culture that Zimmerman was brought up in—this whole environment of safety first, everybody is scared of people, people profile each other and don’t even realize it—that whole culture is what we’re talking about. We’re not just talking about Stand Your Ground.
Stand Your Ground needs to at least be fixed, so of course we’re going to shoot for its repeal. But when you’re talking about racial profiling and the school-to-prison pipeline in general, you’re talking about disenfranchising a whole class of citizens and making them second-class citizens. These people aren’t going to vote. They don’t really partake in the making of their future. All they do is work here, sustain themselves from the land that is provided for them, and racial profiling has a lot to do with that. It has a lot to do with the Trayvon case, with the Zimmerman case, although people are afraid of talking about race. We’re not. We’re at that time where we can’t be afraid of it.
Trimarco: Yeah. Yeah. So, is there anything you think you’ve learned from this experience so far?
Andrade: I think I learned that when you’re finally doing something right, a lot of people will try to stop you. Yeah. That’s what I learned. There’s been a lot of negative comments from a lot of people. I’ve never gotten that before because I’ve never gotten this much media attention.
When you’re trying to work toward affecting this many people and making moves and making change, a lot of people don’t have that faith in you so they ignore you and they talk about you like you’re uneducated or you’re just crazy. And then when you start getting more and more attention, it’s not that everybody changes their mind about you. There are people who genuinely believe in that—educated people, teachers. I posted a blog and I just went back to read what other people are saying and I was like “This is really real.” Like, the tensions between races just went up after Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis.
Trimarco: There’s also been a lot of support, though, from people like Nas and Harry Belafonte. Is there another side of it that’s going the other way?
Andrade: Yeah, that’s why we’re still in existence. We have so much support. People donate the food we eat, the toiletries we use. A lady came in and was just like “Are you a Dream Defender?” I said “Yes.” She said “I don’t have much,” but she gave me a pack of fiber bars. And I was like, “No, thank you. This is actually really important.” Like, we need to be eating healthy. I think a lot of the people here have actually been eating healthier than they would at home. We’ve been having fruit, salad, bananas, we have a lot of organic fresh food.
”But this has opened my eyes and showed me the power of love.”
We’re getting help from people around us. I read a blog last night about being accused of being socialists. And just occupiers. This goes deeper than that. We want to help craft this law. We’re not just complaining about something. We have a way to move forward. We want to work this out!
This is not about capitalism. This is not about occupying something. This is about us using this space as our space. We’re using his office as our space right now. We’re recruiting people to come there, when he’s trying to get us out. So we have those two energies working against each other.
But the reality of it is, people don’t like to sleep there. So the number whittles off. You might go to sleep and there’ll be 30 people. You wake up and there’s 15. People leave, and go take a shower. So it’s more than just “Oh yeah, we’re occupying the space. Help us last long.”
The people who are camping here are literally just now like building an actual bond with each other. So it’s not about the money we can get or the support. It’s more like, “Wow, you’re actually still supporting us?”
The donations as far as money we’ve been getting? We’ve been giving people gas reimbursements. We have people coming from all over Florida but also New York, Boston, Philly, D.C., Ohio. It’s just been like, crazy. We’ve been getting support where it’s people like, order random pizzas. We just had people drop off pizzas yesterday. Someone said “Just drop this off to the Capitol, to the Dream Defenders.” We don’t even know who ordered the pizza. And we did not expect this. Going into this, I was just like “How long is this gonna last?” I have an internship. My mom was like “What are we doing right now?” But that’s the power of love! As cheesy as that sounds.
Trimarco: OK. I’m going to go back to Daniel now. What would you say is the role of this occupation in your movement?
Daniel Agnew: I really want people to understand that this doesn’t define us. Us being at the capitol and us fighting this entity. This is not what defines us or makes us, right? This is just an “X” on a checklist for us. What we do is, we band together our resources and we come and we build a collective power to destroy a corrupt system, right? So this is just our focal point right now.
We still have people in Gainesville and Jacksonville, you know, and in Orlando, who are building and who are doing rallies and are building cultures throughout the state of Florida. What we’re doing here is actually, like I said earlier, we’re at the source. We don’t want to just do rallies and get people roused up. We are actually just focused on this certain thing because we know this is where change can happen. I just want people to understand that this isn’t us, right. This is just something that we have to do. We have to stay here until we win.
Trimarco: The occupation’s just one specific project in a bigger…
Agnew: Yes, yes, yes. Since the year we’ve been born, we are in Jacksonville, we’re in Tallahassee, we’re in Orlando, Gainesville. We’re in seven or eight different colleges. And this is just a year in. We have people every day trying to start chapters but you know, there are some logistics and legal things we have to do before we are able to expand into different states. This is just one thing that we have to do now, right?
We’re building a culture of love and we’re empowering people and we’re taking the veil off the eyes and letting them see that once we do this, and build this collective power, that’s what we change. Once this is over and once we prevail, this is not done, we’re not done. Our job isn’t done. We don’t disappear off the face of the Earth. I mean, like this is just one thing. It’s a check mark and now we’re off to the next thing.
Trimarco: What do you think you’ve learned so far in this occupation?
Agnew: Oh man. I’ve learned a lot. You have to understand, I’m from Chicago and this experience I’ve had is my first time actually organizing. So I’ve learned how to organize. I’ve learned how to build relationships. I’ve learned how to do meetings, do these interviews, I’ve learned how much power we actually have when we come together. I’ve learned how to love. I’ve learned how to understand. I’ve grown in so many aspects of my life within this week, these past weeks. It’s incredible.
I’ve learned that children—We have children who are staying with us and we’re watching over them and their mothers and fathers—who maybe have not been a part of it before—are spending the night with us. So we are learning how to love as a culture because we were stagnant for a while. Our race was stagnant for a while. We’d kind of gotten used to things being the way they were. But this has opened my eyes and showed me the power of love. It sounds so corny but it’s so true.