By Imani Henry and Scott Williams
Tallahassee, Fla., July 28 — They came from all over: Florida, California, New Orleans, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., the Bronx, N.Y., and elsewhere. People of color as young as 8 years old came to support the call put out by the Dream Defenders to rally and sit-in during the weekend of July 26-28 in Florida’s State Capitol in Tallahassee. They were angry at the “not guilty” verdict for George Zimmerman and wanted justice for Trayvon Martin and new laws from the Florida legislature.
Representing the national Alliance for Educational Justice, including such grassroots groups as Youth United for Change, Sistas and Brothas United, the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, the Baltimore Algebra Project and the Black Youth Project, these modern-day freedom riders traveled as many as 30 hours by bus to Florida.
“The brave leadership of the Dream Defenders put their bodies on the line, and our people were glad to join them and will continue to support them throughout the year,” Mustafa Sullivan, AEJ campaign organizer, told Workers World, “‘I believe that we will win’ … is not just a [protest] chant but a promise that the Dream Defenders and the Alliance for Educational Justice plan to show America when it works to end the school-to-prison pipeline, replace racist laws like Stand Your Ground, and fight for justice for all people.”
In response to the “not guilty” verdict for George Zimmerman, the killer of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, the student of color organization — Dream Defenders — has been sitting in and sleeping over in the Capitol building in Tallahassee since July 16. The group is calling on Florida Gov. Rick Scott to convene a special legislative session “to repeal the ‘stand your ground’ law, ban racial profiling and end the school-to-prison pipeline.” (dreamdefenders.org)
A statewide organization with six chapters in Florida, Dream Defenders is directed by Black and Brown youth who self-identify as “the sons and daughters of slaves and farm workers” who “confront systemic inequality by building collective power.”
One of the first actions of Dream Defenders, which formed in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012, was to create a human blockade and surround the Sanford Police Department, refusing to leave until George Zimmerman was arrested.
‘This is not temporary’
Dream Defenders’ Executive Director Philip Agnew told Workers World, “The most important thing that people should know is we are not leaving here. This is not a temporary thing. The governor and the legislature need to know that this is for the future so no one has to do this again. This is not just about the verdict. This is just the latest in a series of injustices against young people.”
Over 300 people participated in a rally on July 26 attended by renowned activist and performer Harry Belafonte. Then at 5 p.m. the Capitol was closed for the weekend and 159 young people — the largest number of protesters to date — spent the night.
Workers World journalists had the opportunity to interview several of these young activists who spoke about their lives and the racist, sexist, ageist oppression they face every day as they try to access jobs, go to school or simply walk around their neighborhoods as Black and Brown youth. Here are some excerpts.
WW: What is it like for young people in Kissimmee?
I’m a first-generation American. My parents came from Cape Verde in Africa. Florida is the place like New York where many immigrants live. Lots of different people live there.
My parents started working in Disney. Lots of people move to Kissimmee because of the jobs at Disney. During 10th grade I moved to Polk County, which is the “heart of Florida,” in the middle in a small city. There is a lot more tension living in a rural area for a young person of color.
The rest of Florida is not like Miami or Orlando. Tallahassee is pretty segregated too. Lots of people in rural Florida live in trailers and there are lots of undocumented people. Also lots of orange groves and workers coming to work there.
The police are often Black or Latino in Kissimmee. I wasn’t that scared of the police [while growing up], but as years went by, I saw it become gentrified. Now there are a million gas stations and new stores, yet always with a big influx of immigrants.
You know the police and what they will do to us based on what we look like. You know if they are from Polk County — more racist — versus Oceola where Kissimmee is. I go outside and every time I get stopped in Polk County. They always patrol the community, asking for my ID. They didn’t believe me once when I said my ID was at my house [and I was] on my front lawn. I told them my ID was inside the house; white kids don’t get hassled over these things. I was safer in Kissimmee in a more diverse neighborhood.
What is your economic situation?
I work at McDonald’s for five years and now I make $7.40. Started at $6.35. I have never been making enough to live. I never get breaks. If I didn’t work through high school, I wouldn’t have the money to pay for my graduation stuff or to pay for taking the SAT [entry exam to get into college].
What about Trayvon’s case resonates and speaks to you directly? How does the war on youth speak to you?
I lived in a gated community, and my brother was arrested there. I have had the Neighborhood Watch see my brother and call the cops on him. The cops picked him up for drug paraphernalia. He’s not going to learn his lesson in jail; he will just get more mad.
This incident happened just after Trayvon’s. It hit me and made me connect to criminalization. People talk about Trayvon’s character, but they don’t know anything about him. Yet people judge his character.
I put things on Facebook about justice for Trayvon. People talk about how bad Trayvon was, yet they don’t understand our culture. They portray him as a “thug.” That’s the same with my brother, who is one of the smartest people I know. Connecting Trayvon’s case with my brother’s — that’s what turned me toward activism.
I met the Dream Defenders at a bowling alley during a party. Phillip [the Dream Defenders’ executive director ] took the mic away from the DJ and made an announcement about a meeting they were having about Trayvon’s murder. He said, “Who is coming with me to this meeting?” I was the only one that raised my hand.
When I went to the meeting, they were talking about going to the Sanford jail that my bro was in. In that county there is no juvenile detention. Rather boys are in there with men. Dream Defenders were gonna go down there and have an action at the jail where my brother was staying. I worked at McDonald’s at the time and got my shifts covered and went to the jail.
What have been moments that are powerful for you this weekend sitting in the Capitol?
When I meet new people and hear them expressing the same things I express. When I see people who look like me who are intellectual, who are organizing. Like when I saw the Occupy movement — people who are talking about capitalism — it didn’t hit home with us. The best part’s been talking to people like me and hearing I can do it.”
Derrick Stephens, 24, Youth United for Change, Philadelphia.
What are conditions like for young people of color in Philadelphia?
“Overall, young Black people are stereotyped that they are young and dangerous. There is the school-to-prison pipeline. Schools are set up to send you to jail. Cops are always suspicious of us. People get arrested for minor things. Cops ask me randomly if they could see my ID.
It’s hard for young people to get jobs. In Philly, if you do make it through college, you can even get lower-paid jobs than the people who didn’t graduate from college. I know three college graduates working at restaurants, two as servers. These are jobs that people would get out of high school.
What brought you to the Capitol this weekend?
First, my morals. I joined YUC in 9th grade. Afterwards I graduated and was a mentor. The executive director asked me to sit on the board.
When I got the email, I knew I had to come this weekend. I am working as a chef at a restaurant, and I called my boss and told him that there is a movement going down to Florida around Trayvon and the school-to-prison pipeline. My boss is a Black small business owner in Philly so he was very supportive.
Since you’ve been here, what is a highlight for you?
How many people came from around the country for the takeover yesterday and the people that stayed, slept here and continued the fight.
Shamile Louis, 21, from Orlando, currently living in Gainesville. She came and slept over at the Capitol with only the clothes on her back on July 16.
What are the conditions for young people in Orlando?
People think of Disney, such a happy-go-lucky place. In West Orlando — the west side — the police harass you if you fit that suspicious look. It is really sad where I come from. Kids die every day. Lots of single-parent homes with poor and old people.
My high school was the oldest high for Black people in Orlando. It’s old, dilapidated. The teachers don’t care, and it’s not up to par. Although University of Florida has been awesome, I wasn’t ready, academically prepared, for it.
Why are you here at the Capitol?
At University of Florida it’s mostly white, only 5,000 Black people [out of 50,000]. You see white frat guys painting “black face” on each other for their “rappers vs. rockstars” parties. That’s when I got active on social media.
There was an isolated hazing incident involving a Black fraternity that made all the newspapers, and emails were sent by the administration to the entire community and alumni. Yet white frats have a minstrel show and nothing was done by the administration.
That was my first chance at activism. We had lots of people come out, held town halls, and a student speak-out against racism, so that they didn’t push the mistrel show parties under the rug.
When I heard that Zimmerman was “not guilty,” my world shattered. I went and balled up and cried for hours. I turned on the TV and saw [Zimmerman] smiling. My friends and I were supposed to go out, but I couldn’t. How is this OK?
I just felt helpless and lost. Dream Defenders had an organizing meeting, organized a march the next Monday [July 15]. Then people decided to come to Tallahassee. I was only supposed to be here one day, but I stayed. So many times we just talked about what to do, but this time we really have a clear list and we are doing it.
I have been here 11 out of the 12 days. The one night I was away from the Capitol, I slept on the floor of my house in solidarity.
What has been the highlight for you during the sit-in?
After the first night, no one knew what to expect sleeping in here. Thirty-five people started, 15 stayed. I got nervous that people wouldn’t care. So nervous that I bit all my nails off. By the time the building closed the next day, we had doubled to 60 people. It was so beautiful for me because I knew this is what people care about. It was a feeling that could not be explained.
Last weekend when we were locked in, people from the outside were cheering for us and we were chanting together and communicating through the glass. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. They had a candlelight vigil, it was raining, and they still showed up. It was the most beautiful thing.
There was a woman who had come Monday after the weekend and said that people who had been standing on the outside felt such a connection with us. She hugged me and started crying — this woman I had never spoken too. When we are here inside and outside the Capitol, we are all family. We are here for Trayvon, but this is so much bigger than Trayvon.
What is it like for young people in the Bronx?
It is a Catch-22. You need years of experience to get a job, but no one will give you job so you can get some experience. With the cops, I have been picked up for trespassing in my own building. Now that the Bronx Pride Community Center has closed, it is harder to find activities and events for lesbian, gay, bi, trans youth in the area.
Why did you get on the bus this weekend?
It more than just Trayvon Martin. It is a national issue. Racial profiling, the school-to-prison pipeline. That we are demeaned by older people who don’t expect us to be up on the issues. This is why I came.
What has been a highlight for you this weekend?
Being around people much younger than me here. Teenagers in high school like Trayvon. I love the chants. That we are together as young people in the Capitol, together on this issue. That we are family.
Katherine Engleman, 20, Baltimore Algebra Project. All the Baltimore participants traveled four extra hours on their own to get on the Philadephia bus.
What are conditions like for young people where you come from?
I lived in Baltimore for nine years; before that I lived in Evansville, Ind. Where I lived in Indiana was one of the poorest school districts, but we still had books, good food in the cafeteria, air conditioning. It was so drastically different in Baltimore. You could tell they just didn’t care about us as students. There were no books, no AC, not enough supplies.
Right now we are dealing with the closing of parks and recreation centers while the city spends more money for police. If your car gets pulled over, you see three police cars surround that one car. Why do they need more money for cops if you clearly have enough police to pull over people ?
Why did you come from Baltimore this weekend?
I felt like I had to be here and not just talk about things but take action.
The action yesterday, all the marching, singing “We who believe in freedom cannot rest” with all those people made me cry. It is powerful when we chant, “I believe that we will win!”
Jaylen Stewart, 8, Tallahassee. He starts 3rd grade on Aug. 19. He has been in the Capitol for six days.
Why are you here, Jaylen?
Because I want justice.
What do you think was bad or unjust?
That Trayvon Martin got killed. Because he was on his way home and he didn’t do nothing.
What has been your favorite thing about being here?
I get to learn more stuff. Games. Songs.
What is your favorite song ?
“Mama mama can’t see. What the state is done to me. They keep trying to bring us down. So we’re marching into town.”
What do you think is important for people to know about why you are sleeping here?
They need to change the law because it wasn’t right what Zimmerman did to Trayvon.
Mustafa Sullivan, AEJ campaign organizer, told Workers World, “This past weekend joining the Dream Defenders was an honor, a lesson and a life-changing experience. Many of the youth leaders, adult organizers and community members of the Bronx, D.C., Philadelphia, Baltimore and Florida pledge to continue the fight for Trayvon’s law until the fight is won.” To support the Dream Defenders’ struggle for Trayvon’s Law, see DreamDefenders.org.