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Dream Defenders earning political credibility

Word is getting around. The Dream Defenders are for real.

Whether you agree with their demands — chiefly to repeal Florida's "stand your ground" law — or view their protest as juvenile foot-stomping, this much is true:

This group of young people knows what it wants and has proved persistent enough to become a player on the state's political stage.

No matter your political persuasion, there's something uplifting about students and 20-something professionals abandoning the protective bubble that comes with demonstrating via Twitter or Facebook from the comfort of their smartphones.

The Dream Defenders aren't relying just on the powerful but relatively sterile political battlefield provided by the Web.

These young men and women are really getting their hands dirty — literally going for days at a time without a shower — and have already forced one meeting (real live eye contact!) with their target: Gov. Rick Scott.

I like their moxie even if their demands are unrealistic — a recent poll showed just 13 percent of Floridians support a full repeal of the law, the Miami Herald reported.

"This isn't a game to us," said Curtis Hierro, a University of Central Florida graduate who has slept on the floor of the Capitol for 13 nights straight. "We've transformed the governor's office into our own space. We're very serious about this work. We're here until this crisis is addressed."

I'll admit I figured the Dream Defenders would roll up their sheets (that's what they sleep on because they aren't permitted sleeping bags or air mattresses) after Scott sat down with them and announced he would call for a day of prayer.

The last time Tallahassee saw a throwback to the 1960s — a sit-in staged in 2000 by lawmakers Kendrick Meek and Tony Hill at then-Gov. Jeb Bush's office — the demonstration lasted just one day.

Bush was famously caught on tape saying, "Kick their [expletives] out," though he later said he was referring to reporters and not the lawmakers. Meek and Hill left after Bush met with them.

But the Defenders aren't satisfied with Scott's refusal to offer any substance.

"It was a PR stunt," Hierro said of the day of prayer. "A lot of us have faith, but faith without works is dead. It's nice to have spirituality, but we need to put that into action."

Hierro is 26 and lives in Orlando, but as the Dream Defender's field director, he is not a rookie activist.

A former organizer with UCF's Student Labor Action Project, Hierro got a mention in the Sentinel in 2011 when he shouted in protest as U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio addressed a crowd of tea partiers at Lake Eola.

The Defenders leader, Philip Agnew, quit his job at a pharmaceutical company last year to grow the group full time after its start — a march to demand the arrest of George Zimmerman. The legal and policy director is an attorney.

Unlike the Occupy Wall Street movement, which struggled to crystallize its goals and has largely fizzled, this group has a laser focus on three demands.

Members want Scott to call a special session to repeal or dramatically reform the "stand your ground" law associated with Zimmerman's acquittal. They want the state to repeal its zero-tolerance policy on school campuses to reduce the number of students funneled into the criminal justice system. And they want lawmakers to crack down on racial profiling.

"We are coming to the table, and no one from the other side has stepped forward and said, 'This is our solution,'" Hierro said. "They've just been kind of ignoring us."

On Monday, Hierro left for a shower and then settled back into the Capitol with about 35 others for another night.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement says overtime costs associated with the protest are topping $60,000.

But it's hard to put a price on politically engaged youth.

bkassab@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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