FAU students protest as Dream Defenders, working towards repealing Stand Your Ground and preventing racial profiling

Stacey Pasternak

Gonzalo Vizcardo (standing) and other protesters from the Stop Owlcatraz Coalition meet in front of FAU Stadium in March 2013. The group, now known as FAU Voices, are bussing back to Tallahassee as the FAU chapter of ʺDream Defendersʺ to lobby for Trayvon's Law in Governor Rick Scott's office. Photo by Michelle Friswell.​

Gonzalo Vizcardo (standing) and other protesters from the Stop Owlcatraz Coalition meet in front of FAU Stadium in March 2013. The group, now known as FAU Voices, are bussing back to Tallahassee as the FAU chapter of ʺDream Defendersʺ to lobby for Trayvon’s Law in Governor Rick Scott’s office. Photo by Michelle Friswell.​

Marches commence. Slogans are pasted, printed or written onto signs and held high in the air, declaring things like “The State is Ours” and other quotes of confidence. The hashtag #TakeOverFL is tweeted from iPhones left and right. Florida’s capitol building is filled to the brim with students hailing from all corners of the state. This can be the working of none other than the Dream Defenders.

The Dream Defenders is a student-led organization that has been causing an uproar in past weeks, urging Florida legislators in Tallahassee to pass Trayvon’s Law. The law is aimed at repealing Stand-Your-Ground, ending racial profiling, providing oversight to police so they don’t get involved in unauthorized activities, community watch group training, collecting data on minority group homicide cases and addressing the school-to-prison pipeline, a growing trend where children go straight from school to prison.

The Stand-Your-Ground law is for those who claim to have acted in self-defense by protecting themselves with force. The Dream Defenders disagree with this law and other seemingly unlawful activities, such as racial profiling.

According to dreamdefenders.org, since 4:42 PM on Wednesday, August 7, the Dream Defenders have been in the capitol for 22 days, 10 hours, 42 minutes, and 59 seconds, with no signs of stopping anytime soon. Since Tuesday, July 16, they’ve been having sit-ins in hopes of provoking the legislators. The supply list is simple, listing recommended items under the topic “What You Can Bring to #TakeOverFL:” with necessities such as blankets, pillows, and sleeping bags topping the list. With almost 14,000 likes on the Dream Defenders Facebook page, they post pictures nearly every hour with updates on the amount of days they’ve been in the capital and inspirational posters and pictures that promote unity and love.

In a YouTube video posted by TheRealNews, Dream Defenders Executive Director Phillip Agnew, FAMU graduate and past student body president, said, “our demands are today as they were when we first got here, that the governor call a special session of the legislature to convene to discuss a series of issues that we feel created the environment that raised up George Zimmerman and that killed Trayvon Martin.” According to another YouTube video by GlobalGrindTV, Jesse Jackson –– activist and minister –– said, “what’s exciting is that these students finally come alive. There’s a wind a-blowing now.”

The Dream Defenders travel nearly once a week to the capital. Their goal is simple: for a special session of the Florida legislation to pass Trayvon’s Law, which will address the stand-your-ground, racial profiling and restorative justice policies, according to FAU senior and economics and anthropology double-major Gonzalo Vizcardo, who has become very involved in the movement.

“The movement is about adjusting the conditions that gave rise to the murder of Trayvon Martin,” Vizcardo said. “When the verdict came down, I and a lot of others from FAU and south Florida realized that that there was a lot of unfinished business in this regard. That’s why we are planning a special session for Trayvon’s Law.”

Another FAU student has been making waves in the Dream Defender community: student government member Didier Ortiz has been involved in the cause since July.

“I found out about the Dream Defenders through Facebook,” Ortiz said. “I was invited through there, so I looked them up, went to their website, watched their videos, took a ride with them to Tallahassee, didn’t expect much but when I got there I was floored, I was surprised, I was gladly surprised. They’re very socially conscious people, they’re very aware of the issues, and they’re trying to make a positive difference.”

Vizcardo and Ortiz both take the cause to heart, but for varying reasons. While Vizcardo recently realized that there was a lot of unfinished business in regards to Zimmerman’s verdict of not guilty, Ortiz’s reasoning started from a young age.

“Growing up, and all my life, seeing some of the negative social consequences of many of the failed policies in this state, and then seeing how that affects people, you start to see how that really brings them down,” Ortiz said. “I think a lot of people, especially those who don’t live in those same situations, they don’t see the urgency in changing that, but I see the urgency in changing that and I realize there’s many people at this University who see the urgency in changing that and I want to be part of that change.”

The Dream Defenders have not yet formed the board here at FAU nor have they scheduled a set meeting time and date. That being said, Ortiz felt confident enough in FAU’s involvement to propose a Support for Dialogue and Understanding bill to the August 2nd Student Government House of Representatives meeting. The bill was proposed during new business,  where new bills are either passed, denied or tabled. Although it got tabled until the next meeting on September 6, Ortiz stayed positive. “It’s better than getting it voted down,” Ortiz said. Hopefully for him and the others involved, the cause will still be valid at that time so that it can be voted on again. Ortiz thought up the bill a couple of weeks prior to the meeting.

“Back in February [the Dream Defenders] actually helped us out a little bit with the campaigning against GEO group regarding the GEO group deal for the name of the stadium at FAU,” Vizcardo said. “Most older students know of the ‘Stop Owlcatraz Coalition’ to revoke FAU’s financial transaction with the GEO Group, a private corrections, detention and mental health treatment provider.”

Vizcardo’s favorite part of the cause? Its uniqueness.

“It’s an efficient movement and the issues that it works on have not been addressed in this way in years,” Vizcardo said. “This is a youth-led movement that is systematic and unwavering in its organizing methods and political demands. It addresses a broad range of issues confronting Florida’s youth and has received support from all over the country and from seasoned activists and celebrities. This is also the longest sit-in in the Florida Capitol, and possibly in the state.”

Not everyone at FAU supports the Dream Defenders, however. Ortiz’s fellow student government member, Parliamentarian Ian Dunne, opposes the Dream Defenders movement.

“I understand what they stand for, but at the same time, you say one thing but what you happen to be doing is another,” Dunne said. “I’ve been seeing how they go about their business, I’ve seen their sit-ins in the conference room up in the capital, I’ve seen the hashtag #takeoverFL, I don’t know exactly what that means but it doesn’t sound like something that they would stand for.”

Dunne, who knew about the Dream Defenders weeks prior to the interview, knew what was going on when Ortiz proposed the bill “Support for Dialogue and Understanding” at the House meeting.

“I appreciate that Representative Ortiz brought it to our attention, but at the same time, just by reading the bill itself it sounds as if we are in support of the movement itself and not really open to dialogue,” Dunne said. “If you just cut out the section where it talks about the group, then the bill would make more sense.”

As for the bill getting tabled to September 6, Dunne sticks to his opinions but is looking forward to seeing how the other House members feel about the bill.

Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Political Science department, Kevin Wagner has been working at FAU for seven years and has heard about the Dream Defenders.

“I believe in civic engagement and I am always happy to see any citizen petitioning their government to make laws or change laws based on their principles,” Wagner said of their efforts in Tallahassee. “As long as there is no violence, this is part of being an American. People should pay attention to government and speak with their elected representatives.”

Wagner sees both the good and bad sides of the lengths at which the Dream Defenders are willing to go to evoke change.

“There is a long history of nonviolent protest in this country,” Wagner said. “Every now and then it is good for government to be disturbed. It helps them remember that there are real people out there and that the laws they pass matter. With that said, I never would encourage anyone to violence or to break any laws.”