The Dream Defenders, who are marking Day 24 of their Capitol sit-in outside Gov. Rick Scott's office, announced they are launching a massive drive to register 61,550 voters by 2014 -- the margin Scott won by in the 2010 election.
"We intend to register the people that are forgotten - the black, the brown, the indigent, the poor, the LGBT community and we will meet them where they are, in the classrooms, in the mall, at the club, on the corner, at the bus stop" said the Dream Defenders Executive Director Philip Agnew at a press conference Thursday.
He said the effort, which would enlist students on Florida campuses, would be geared toward issues, not candidates. "At the end of the day, we are not blue or red."
There's a need to "build power," Agnew said, so that "when the time comes again for us to move on issues like the school-to-prison pipeline, like racial profiling, like Stand Your Ground, we don't have to sit on the floor again."
The grassroots protest, led by the Miami-based Dream Defenders, started July 16, in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The group has demanded Scott convene a special session to create a Trayvon Martin Civil Rights Act, which would repeal Stand Your Ground and prohibit racial profiling.
Asked how long the students could continue camping out, Agnew said "As long as it takes. I think Alot of us would love to see what 40 day sand 40 nights feels like."
While college will be starting soon for many of the young activists, they said they expect more reinforcements from their peers who will be back in town.
Yaklara Gonzalez, of Florida State University's Dream Defender program, said that the group "moved the bar forward last week" when House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley CHapel, directed Criminal Justice Subcommittee Chairman Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, to hold a hearing on Stand Your Ground during a committee week this fall.
"But that's not enough," Gponzalez said. "Young people in the state will not be safe" until other issues are addressed, including the effects of "dangerous and careless vigilantism
Fielding a question about Gaetz, Agnew joked that he's still "looking forward" to their televised debate. "I hear he's a very astute debater and I'm just a kid from Chicago so I'm loking forward to engaging him in a substansive debate.
Agnew said he "hit (Gaetz) him up" in Twitter and the representative responded he was "looking forward" to a debate, but later said it was just "Twitter talk"
"But he announced that on Twitter, too. so I don't know which to believe. But we're here. I think by now he knows where to find us."
The Dream Defenders might have another issue with the elder Gaetz. An article in Wednesday's News Herald quoted Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, prior to addressing the Rotary Club of Panama City Northeast, saying "I wish the protestors weren't there. I wish they'd leave."
Gaetz's spokeswoman, Katie Betta, said he made those comments at an event as part of his “Neighborhood Day” and said he was elaborating on the comments he’s made from Day One, which are “When asked, I have advised constituents that the most productive way to impact the legislative process would be to meet with their local Senators to discuss the specific changes they’d like to see.”
He is concerned about the growing cost to the state, but as he said, he respects their constitutional right to protest, and thus far the protest has been conducted peacefully without impeding the business of the Capitol."
At Thursday's press conference, The Defenders also released a draft of their proposed "Florida's Trayvon's Law," which includes these points:
- Keep students in class and learning by placing limits on school-based arrests and exclusionary discipline.
- Remove all references to "zero tolerance" in the administration of school discipline.
- Establish selection and training requirements for school resource and school safety officers.
- Require yearly analysis of school-based arrest data.
- Fund staff positions like social workers, counselors and restorative justice coordinators.
- Require training on racial and bias-based profiling for all law enforcement officers.
Miami Herald / Tampa Bay Times reporter Kathleen McGrory contributed to this article