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Who Are The Dream Defenders?

On a September morning, three college students sat on the steps of the J. Wayne Reitz Union driveway at the University of Florida, waiting for a van that would take them to Tallahassee.

 The white letters on their black T-shirts projected through the gray of the morning: Dream Defenders. It was 8 a.m. and neither Woodjerry Louis and Trenton Brooks, both 21, nor Azaari Mason, 18, were complaining, even though their ride was late.

Two hours later, the white van pulled into the circle drive just as rain began to fall. Two more Dream Defenders were in the car — the female leaders of the eight-person UF chapter. The three young men piled in quickly, exchanged hellos and grumbled about the mess of obtaining a rental car. Before long they were on the road, traveling 150 miles to the state capital.

Born of outrage about perceived injustices, they are part of an organization that spans eight Florida college campuses and has about 250 members. The Dream Defenders formed in the wake of the February 2012 shooting death of teen Trayvon Martin.

In April of that year, three long-time friends with a background in politics at Florida State University and Florida A&M University began to plan.

Philip Agnew, executive director for the Dream Defenders, Ahmad Abuznaid, the legal and policy director, and Gabriel Pendas, the chief strategist, created a Facebook invitation for a conference call to act on behalf of Martin.

The call marked the beginning of the Dream Defenders with 150 participants bouncing ideas on how best to protest Martin’s death.

“We thought we’d like to start a movement reminiscent of the civil rights movement of the past, but in our generation,” Abuznaid said.

The idea stuck, though they didn't yet have a name.

A young woman on the call, who to this day has not been identified, spoke up.

“She said, ‘You all are defending the dream. You should call yourselves the dream defenders,’ and we all really liked that,” Abuznaid said.

The call resulted in the organization of a 40-mile, three-day protest march from Daytona Beach to Sanford.

For the better part of a year and a half, they silently grew, organizing themselves for their next major move. By August 2012, they were a formal organization. A logo, T-shirts, a crisply designed website and a social media presence emerged.

The July 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Martin case again brought them out of obscurity. In the controversy that followed the trial’s decision, the group took a different tact.

“The news were saying we were going to destroy our communities in the wake of the verdict, and we were at a time when that was going on showing that we can be disciplined, be smart, be energetic, be real, be strategic and also present a way forward,” said Agnew, 28.

The group is composed mostly of college-age 20-somethings, though it has some as young as 18 and others in their 50s. They came from across the state to the Tallahassee Capitol building in July with to push for an alternative to Florida's  “stand your ground” law.

During a 31-day sit-in of Gov. Rick Scott’s office, they demanded a review of stand your ground and presented their version, "Trayvon’s law," which would repeal it. They asked for an end to racial profiling and the school-to-prison pipeline.

For days, they slept on the Capitol’s marble floor under the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame wall. Nearby churches gave them a place to shower, friends offered their homes during the day, and at 5:45 a.m. every day, the Defenders were waking up, moving their things off the lobby floor to the third floor in order to avoid interfering with the daily operations of the Capitol.

"This is the place"

Two months later, as the van screeched to a stop around noon, the Dream Defenders returned to the place they had come to know so well during the summer.

With the start of the new legislative session, Dream Defenders from around Florida descended upon one of the public rooms of the Historic Capitol Museum, across the building they originally occupied, to participate in educational lobbying workshops.

The UF chapter was the last to arrive, rushing up the white steps to the Capitol building. Once through the metal detectors in the lobby, they paused.

For 20 days, Woodjerry Louis, a member of the UF chapter, sat and slept there.

Louis looked for his spot, next to a wall by the front entrance.

“This is the place where we started creating change,” he said.

After one day with the Dream Defenders during the sit-in, he went to Gainesville to gather clothes for the stay.

“I never met a group of people who were so selfless,” said Louis, 21. “Everybody was in it to win it. Everybody put their ego down.”

Born in the United States but raised in Haiti, Louis moved to Miami when he was 16. The Capitol occupation was his first in-depth lesson about America's history of discrimination.

He said his parents, who still live in Haiti, don’t fully understand the scope of what he’s doing. In Haiti, he said, when you see a conflict, you try to stop it or control it. His upbringing taught him to value human life first. If there is an ability to retreat or to stop violence, you do.

In Haiti, there is no such thing as stand your ground laws, statutory terms like imminent danger or the legalized ability to meet force with force.

"Generations and generations of slavery"

A Chicago native, Philip Agnew came from a poor background. In his black and white Dream Defenders T-shirt, grey suit coat and round glasses, he was the smiling, joking head of the group composed solely of volunteers.

“This movement is not just about black people and white people,” he said. “This movement is not just about Latino people. It’s not about Asian Americans. It’s about Americans. It’s about human beings who deserve every American right.”

A Florida A&M University graduate, Agnew quit his pharmaceutical sales job in Charlotte, N.C., in June of 2012 to move to Miami and head the organization. He is the only member who gets paid — a $29,000 through the Service Employees International Union.

The organization is funded through $42,000 in donations obtained during the sit-in at the Capitol, which have paid for T-shirts and some expenses, but money is beginning to run short. The group's signature POWER hats came through a partnership with a maker in Washington D.C., but each member had to pay for theirs. The organization is in talks with several foundations to obtain funding for the future.

Meanwhile, the volunteers keep fighting. Many come from many ethnicities and backgrounds, Agnew said. Most are from low-income communities, like him.

“But we also have some middle class folks who have joined our organization because they see that the world and the America that we want tomorrow won’t happen unless we start doing the work today,” Agnew said.

Abuznaid, who was born in East Jerusalem, Palestine, has always seen the fight for civil rights as a part of life.

“I think once you’re born Palestinian, the fight for justice is ingrained in your body and in your blood, in your bones even,” said Abuznaid, 29. “I have a thirst for the fight for justice that I cannot quench.”

Some of today's youth are beginning to awaken to these injustices, he said.

Laquinta Alexander was among those to awake.

Friends urged her to join the Dream Defenders, and after Zimmerman’s acquittal, she couldn’t stay out any longer. The 21-year-old joined Florida A&M University’s chapter.

“It hit home for me. Being from Oviedo, I’ve seen racism first hand,” she said. “I come from generations and generations of slavery, oppression and things such as that nature.”

Her high school wasn’t integrated until the 1970s. She was the fourth African American girl to dance on her dance team in high school. She often saw confederate flags flying around town.

On Sept. 23 she sat among the Dream Defenders in their return to Tallahassee. After the workshops, her group walked to the Capitol and began lobbying state senators and representatives, presenting them with folders of information on “Trayvon’s Law.”

Moving from room to room, knocking on doors and sitting in waiting rooms, Alexander waited for someone to hear her case.

Her effort almost went to waste until she caught one senator just as she was leaving, managing to leave a white folder with her secretary. They never heard back from her.

By 5 p.m., the Defenders had piled into a Tallahassee pizza joint for a debriefing meeting. They discussed the high and low points of the day and where they could improve their lobbying techniques.

They snapped their figure in agreement as members spoke.

A connection to Martin's story strung deeply through the hearts of many Defenders. Still, 20-year-old Rebecca Krueger, pale skin and red curly hair, snapped her fingers along the group without any personal connection to the cause.

“Hearing other people’s stories and the things that other people have gone through and realizing how lucky I’ve been in my life and how much I’ve been given, I don’t know why I wouldn’t want to support this and support people who have gone through a lot ,” Krueger said.

Her family, she said, fully supports what she’s doing.

"People need this"

As the sun started to set and the rain to fall in the Tallahassee night, the Defenders finished their pizzas and talked animatedly. After six hours of workshops and lobbying, no one was rushing out the door.

Communications director Steven Pargett, sporting dreadlocks and a red POWER cap, was awed and ruminated on the scene.

“People aren’t in a rush to leave,” he said. “I know that when I’m here, I feel understood in a way I’m not often able to be."

The mind behind the black and white logo, slogans and T-shirt designs, the 24-year-old from Southern California has provided a brand, making the Defenders recognizable wherever they go.

The members dispersed after dinner, some going home across Florida, but most meeting up one last time at the home of a Tallahassee member. About 20 college students swarmed the house, but not to relax after a long day.

After a few minutes and a distraction watching a scene from “Gangs of New York,” the different chapters were back in groups, discussing future plans and meeting with Pargett and other staff members to plot the organization's future.

They had ideas about campaigns, ideas about posters and meetings. A sea of these thoughts filled a room of tired, but energetic college students.

Something about this cause has taken hold of their often-fleeting attention.

"It’s really special," Pargett said, "and I’m just trying to find out how to bottle what we have here and serve it to the world because people need this.”

Chabeli is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.