A well-organized coalition of students carrying signs and chanting greeted lawmakers at the start of the 60-day legislative session Tuesday morning, urging them to repeal the state’s Stand Your Ground self-defense law and amend other laws they say harm minorities.
About 100 “Dream Defenders,” made up of minority students from several Florida universities clad in black T-shirts imprinted with “Can We Dream Together?” in white, lined the fourth floor rotunda of the Capitol. They sang protest songs and chanted “The state is ours!” leading up to and during Gov. Rick Scott’s State of the State address.
Their “Dream Agenda” reflected in a slew of bills filed by black and Hispanic Democratic lawmakers, includes a repeal of the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law and reforming criminal justice laws they characterize as the “school-to-prison-pipeline.” They’re also asking for changes to the state’s election laws and measures that would allow high school graduates who are undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at colleges and universities.
Drawing their name from Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, the group organized last year in response to the death of Trayvon Martin, who was shot to death by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. Zimmerman said he shot the unarmed black 17-year-old in self-defense, but a judge has not yet decided if the law allowing people to use deadly force when they feel threatened applies in Zimmerman’s case. The law provides immunity from prosecution or arrest.
“Even today the life of a black boy or brown boy in this state is worth less than the bullet lodged in his chest,” the organization’s executive director Phillip Agnew, a Florida A&M University graduate who lives in Miami, said at a press conference early Tuesday morning.
Gov. Rick Scott, House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz, all Republicans, support the Stand Your Ground law but Democratic lawmakers have filed bills to amend or repeal it.
But Agnew said he thinks the national attitude towards guns has changed in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shootings.
“We want a repeal. We’ll settle for a reform,” Agnew said. “The confines of that law are loose. If you create any bit of fear in me, I’m sorry ma’am, I can take you out. I don’t believe anybody, any person in here, believes that was (what) the law was supposed to be and certainly not black and brown people.”
The group, backed by the Service Employees International Union and loosely affiliated with the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center, plans to maintain a presence in the Capitol throughout the session, Agnew said.
“This is just a starting point for us. We’ll be here throughout the session… to ensure that some of these things pass,” he said.