Activists are demanding a repeal of the notorious Stand Your Ground legislation and an end to racial profiling and the “school to prison pipeline”
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
In the wake of a Florida jury finding George Zimmerman not guilty of killing Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American teenager, a group of young activists calling themselves the Dream Defenders have occupied the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee, demanding a special session be held to end the state’s stand-your-ground laws, the school-to-prison pipeline, racial profiling, among other demands.
We are now joined by the group’s executive director, Phillip Agnew. He’s a graduate of the Florida A&M University School of Business and Industry. He served as a student body president and is a member of the university board of trustees and faculty senate.
Thank you so much for joining us, Phillip.
PHILLIP AGNEW, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, DREAM DEFENDERS: Thank you for having me.
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NOOR: So, Phillip, we saw right here in Baltimore there was a wave of national outcry against the not-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman, who acknowledged that he killed Trayvon Martin, and unarmed African-American teenager. Talk about why your group, the Dream Defenders, have taken over the Florida State Capitol now for the 11th straight day and what your demands are today.
AGNEW: Our demands are today as they were when we first got here, that the governor called a special session of the legislature to convene to discuss our series of issues that we feel created the environment that raised up George Zimmerman and that killed Trayvon Martin. And so we’re here demanding and petitioning the governor in a peaceful manner to do what the president did a week ago and to do what other people around the country have done and show some leadership.
NOOR: So, Phillip, George Zimmerman, he did not actually use the stand-your-ground law in his defense. Can you explain to us why you so strongly opposed it and why it fits into this bigger picture of racial profiling in Florida?
AGNEW: Well, it is true that his defense team did not use it in his defense. But it was used liberally in the jury instructions, and many of the jurors have on the record said that that law was the reason they felt they had no other choice but to find him not guilty.
And, really, to be frank, it’s not even about the verdict. I think for a lot of young black, brown, and poor young people in the state, whether or not he was found guilty or not guilty, their situation would have just been–would have been just as dire as it was before that.
There’s a sad state of affairs in the state, and the stand-your-ground law really does encourage violence and protect the perpetrators more than it does diminish or decrease violence. I think a law like that that induces so much confusion and that can be applied so wantonly and that really doesn’t protect anyone should be off the books. And I think our lawmakers here in the state of Florida and others around the country are elected to be the brightest brains as it comes to making laws. And so we want to give them an opportunity to make a better law but clean this one off the books.
NOOR: So on that issue of stand your ground, can you tell us who Marissa Alexander is and how she fits into that picture of who gets protected by stand your ground?
AGNEW: Yeah. I think the cases have many similarities, and there are some stark differences. Marissa Alexander was a woman who says or alleged that her estranged husband was abusive, and was trying to protect herself, and so she shot some warning shots into the air.
NOOR: And she’s African American, right?
AGNEW: She’s African American. And because of mandatory minimum, she was given 20 years in prison. And so I think the dichotomy we see here in the application of the law and then in the providing of the law as a basis for jury instruction, we see that the jury in cases where stand your ground is involved is often left confused. And if you are a person of color, it usually falls or you usually are found guilty.
And in the case specifically of Marissa Alexander, there’s a lot of things that we can talk about, mandatory minimums being one of them, the fact that just an assault puts her away for 20 years. And really, she had no opportunity to retreat in this case. So it was a little bit odd that she’s using it, right, and that it hasn’t been as helpful as the law was supposed to be. It seems that the Marissa Alexander case is the prime law, a prime example of why that law was made and why it was put on the books, and even then the law doesn’t help anybody. So, you know, we see that the law’s problematic whether it’s used or not used. So we should probably use this as an opportunity to reevaluate.
NOOR: And a lot of people have made the connection between stand your ground and other laws in Florida and what’s called the new Jim Crow, this overall criminal injustice system that disproportionately targets African Americans and Latinos as well and incarcerates them at much higher rates than the rest of the population. Now, President Obama got a lot of praise for what he did say in his speech last week talking about Trayvon Martin, saying that he could have been Trayvon Martin four decades ago, but he did not use that opportunity to talk about the new Jim Crow. What’s your response to that? Do you feel that he was right in not mentioning the new Jim Crow?
AGNEW: No, absolutely not. I think the president’s comments last week did begin a discussion and gave other leaders around the country permission to begin a really hard discussion about race. I think it was an important talk for the president, the leader of our country, to discuss a time where he wasn’t seen as somebody that was a role model or he wasn’t seen as a leader but he was seen as just a black man in America. So it’s very important to hear our president take some leadership and speak about that.
I think it would take a little bit while–a little while longer, rather, for him to be able to talk about racial profiling and stand your ground and the school-to-prison pipeline in any substantial [snip] And really no matter what the president says, it’s going to take action on the ground and it’s going to take real leadership on the ground at the grassroots level for anything to happen.
Our governor–our president can say a number of things. We’ve had a number–for example, we’ve had a number of presidents talk about going to war and the war on terrorism and that we need to eradicate all the insurgents, and even then the American people who didn’t agree with it were left to swallow the pill. So our president can say many things. And last week he said a lot, and it was inspirational at points. It was very maddening at others.
But it’s going to take people at the local level, governors, it’s going to take mayors, it’s going to take chiefs of police, sheriffs, police officers, and community members to really, really attack the issue, no matter what our president says. So I appreciate him for–but hopefully it translates into some action on the ground.
NOOR: And, Phillip, you’re doing exactly that. You have been in this–in the Florida State Capitol for 11 days. You’ve met with Florida Governor Rick Scott. Can you tell us what he told the Dream Defenders? And also can you talk about the support you’ve gotten from around Florida and around the country as well?
AGNEW: Yeah, I would love to. I think we had a number of our Dream Defenders come into that meeting with the governor with the explicit or the express purpose of telling our story, because we knew that this is chess, and all that was was a photo opportunity for the governor, an opportunity for the governor to advance a story that says, hey, I gave them an audience, I’m a keen listener. And so in that meeting he listened a lot. And then at the end of the meeting he told us to pray about racial profiling. And so we told him that faith without works is dead and that if he really loved people, we were going to bring as many people as possible for him to love to the Capitol, because to be frank, our governor, he claims to be a faithful man, he claims to be a man with a heart, but when you have the startling statistics of youth incarceration and young people being taken out of school, it really doesn’t jive well with that image. And so that meeting was just an opportunity for us to begin a dialog.
It was also an opportunity for him to understand that we’re not just kids, we’re not just young people that are going to yell at him or be in his office, even though we don’t intend on leaving, but that he’s up against an immovable force, and that in a time where many of our politicians are seeking reelection, it may be wise for him to open up his heart and open up his ears to young people in this opportunity that we’re giving him to show some leadership.
Mr. Harry Belafonte is joining us today here in the capital, and it’s an honor to have a luminary, a legend, someone who’s been here, someone who’s been there, who’s been able to be keenly aware of the struggle to be here with our young people. So it’s an awesome opportunity to have him here. And, man, I mean, we’ve gotten Tweets of support from Nas, from Q-Tip, from Talib, those people that I listen to, I respect musically and lyrically, and who have also lended their voice not just to tracks but also to the movement. And so the support is wide-reaching. We’ve had NAACP’s support, SCLC’s support, the Advancement Project that works up there, as I said. Yesterday we had buses from Baltimore and Philly and D.C. and New York come down from young people.
So the support is wide. All we need is the governor to, like I said many times, show some leadership, call this session, give the young people of Florida an opportunity to decide their future and rise up above the rest. Florida had a horrible year last year. He has an opportunity to make sure that in Florida, Disney World isn’t the only place where dreams come true for children.
NOOR: And to add to that list of support, you have musicians, like Stevie Wonder, who said they’re going to boycott Florida and every other state that has a stand-your-ground law until that law is repealed.
Final question for you, Phillip. Some people have made the parallel between what you’re calling for and what’s starting in Florida now with your 11-day occupation and the month-long Moral Mondays campaign in North Carolina, where nearly 1,000 people have gotten arrested committing civil disobedience protesting the laws they’re passing there. What are the next steps going to be for you in Florida? And how far are you willing to go to have your voice heard?
AGNEW: I’m in this to win this, so I’m willing to go as far as possible within the bounds of love and respect to get what we want and get what we deserve. What we like to say is all we want is what America promised us. We’re not greedy with ours, but we want to make sure that Florida provides young people with an equal opportunity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We feel like we [incompr.] the most American of values, and we’re just trying to balance the scales in a way that hasn’t been done for young people in the state. So we’re in it to win it. We don’t have any intentions on leaving until we get what we want.
And big ups to Moral Mondays. We Skyped them this week. I lived in Charlotte, North Carolina, for four years, and I wasn’t able to get up to Raleigh during this, during the movement they’ve been building. But we’ve definitely used them as an emotional compass for us, and our hearts are always with them every Monday. And I think I can speak for them when they told us that their hearts are with us down here. And we’re going to continue to move.
This occupation, though, isn’t the only part. It’s not the totality of our movement. It’s just one tactic. So we’re going to be calling on lawmakers to help us move that section, and then the Dream Defenders are going to–we announced last week that we’re going to have our own special session here at the capital.
This is about power. And if the governor doesn’t want to use his power, we’re going to take it and do it ourselves, and he’s going to assure that he’s a one-term governor.
NOOR: Phillip Agnew, thank you so much for joining us. And we’ll certainly be in touch. And we’ll keep following your–the Dream Defenders’ occupation of the state capital and see how long it takes to get your voice heard.
AGNEW: Hey, thank you. I appreciate it, brother.
NOOR: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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