It was a little before midnight on Thursday when the 12-person van packed with 15 people pulled onto the campus of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. The bleary-eyed, huddled masses inside yelled for the driver to turn up the stereo as they pumped their fists and cheered.
After eight long hours on the road from Miami–with stops at a couple college campuses across the state–the core of the Dream Defenders, a group of mostly twenty-something activists, had made it that much closer to their final destination: Washington, DC.
They were greeted by a charter bus and about 50 other college students from all over Florida. The scene was part-family reunion, part-field trip. There were hugs and smiles and a kind of giddy excitement as the group loaded bags into the belly of the bus under the moonlight.
For the next 16 hours the group rumbled up I-95 and the eastern seaboard toward Washington and a date with history, pulling into the district late on Friday afternoon as a slew of rallies, receptions and commemorations for the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington were set to begin.
The group formed in the shadow of Trayvon Martin’s killing and emerged from obscurity a little more than a month ago. In the weeks after Martin’s death, the young Floridians, ethnically diverse but led by people of color, marched 40 miles from Daytona Beach to Sanford, where the unarmed teen was killed.
They staged a 31-day occupation of Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s office to demand a review of Stand Your Ground laws, the destruction of the school-to-prison pipeline, and the elimination of racial profiling by police.
And though the sit-in ended without the governor meeting their demands, the group’s commitment and energy drew the attention of established social justice and voting groups. Now the Defenders are focusing on electoral action, aiming to register 61,550 voters before the next voting cycle. What’s special about that number? It was Gov. Scott’s margin of victory in the last election.
Since then they’ve been featured in local and national newspapers and on cable news shows. They’ve been embraced by legendary activists like Harry Belafonte, Jesse Jackson Sr. and Julian Bond. Famous rappers have shouted them out on Twitter (Nas) and joined them at their protests (Talib Kweli).
The group has grown from a handful to about 250 members. Among the youngest are a couple of 18 and 19 year olds. The eldest is 31-year-old co-founder Gabriel Pendas, a veteran organizer and self-proclaimed “old man” of the bunch.
Julian Bond, a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who was 23 when he attended the original march in 1963, said the Dream Defenders fill a void long left vacant in the post-Civil Rights era.
“They remind me of me when I was their age,” Bond said. “They are fulfilling a role that has been missing. They are doing things that used to be done but aren’t done now.”
But even with the praise heaped upon the Dream Defenders, Phillip Agnew, the group’s 28-year-old leader, said this is no time to bask.
“For us this is a time for us to build. We haven’t arrived at anything yet,” Agnew said, as the Dream Defenders’ bus chugged through the Carolinas and into Virginia this afternoon.
“This is no coming out party. We’ve only scratched the surface collectively. We’re the new kids on the block. We’re all just trying to figure out how we got here. I think we just have the right message at the right time.”
The message, Agnew said, is “Love and Power.”
“It’s everything and in the very nature of what we’re doing,” Agnew said. “We’re taking powerless people into a position of power. Power to move, power to get what you want and deserve. We do that because we have love. Love and power. It’s everything.”
Agnew will be a featured speaker at events on Saturday and Wednesday, the actual anniversary of the march, joining a list of prominent civil rights and religious leaders, the families of Trayvon Martin and Emmitt Till, and President Barack Obama.
But back on the bus he’s just another young guy who hasn’t showered or had a solid meal in days. The conversation among this very articulate, very astute bunch often dances between political philosophy and the latest track by Kendrick Lamar.
The group is almost completely volunteer, with Agnew the only paid member (via the Service Employees International Union) as an organizer. While high-profile supporters like Belafonte have brought a surge in donations, enough to put nearly 60 people on a bus and up in a hotel (four to a room), there’s still not enough to keep building the organization to capacity.
And like their civil rights era counterparts, these young people have to deal with parents and adults in their lives who simply don’t get their involvement in civil disobedience and activism, or who worry about possible consequences.
Woodjerry Lovis, 21, a student at University of Florida, said his Hatian family would rather see him “go to school and get a job.”
Joshua McConnell, 22, a student at the University of Central Florida, said “I think my family is still stuck in their southern ways.”
“But I’ve always been the rebel,” McConnell said, at a pit stop for breakfast at a McDonalds in Lumberton, NC., on Friday morning. “Their main thing is be careful, be careful. But I tell them we’re a family. If one goes down, we all go down.”
That probably isn’t the kind of reassurance a parent is looking for.
Lasha Lorraine, 22, a senior at Florida A&M from Orlando, said she quit her job to dedicate herself more fully to activism and to fight for people who grew up poor and angry, the way she did. Lorraine said that when she asked her mother to send her a few dollars to help her get by, her mother refused.
“They aspire for me to get the so-called American dream,” Lorraine said. “Go to school, get a job and be complacent. But I quit my job to organize. I didn’t want to be trapped. My worth is more important than a dollar bill and I’d rather spend my time building power than giving it away for $7 an hour.”
Agnew said his own mortgage is late. His Miami home has become a headquarters/hostel for the Dream Defenders. Written out budgets and plans and the notes from past brainstorming sessions stretch across his living room walls like paper tentacles. At one point there were 40 people staying at his house, he said.
“It’s like we’re all in this dojo learning to be organizers,” said Steven Pargett, 23, who does communications for the group.
For Agnew the sense of family the Dream Defenders try to embody is a practical means of building trust and keeping the group together, but it’s also a means to keep himself grounded. His younger brother Daniel, 24, has joined him as a leader in the organization.
The two traveled very different paths to this present of theirs. Phillip attended a great magnet high school in their native Chicago and later graduated from Florida A&M, taking a job in pharmaceutical sales. Daniel got mixed up with the wrong things and wrong people and ended up spending a year in prison on a gun charge.
But when Phillip moved to Charlotte, NC., to take a job as a pharmaceutical sales rep, Daniel moved with him. And later, when Phillip moved to Miami to work as an organizer, Daniel was there too. And slowly, as Daniel tells it, “I’ve never been to college but I started to study and read about organizing and political philosophy.”
“Having my brother here makes it more real and surreal,” Phillip Agnew said. “He’s been here since the beginning. It’s so cool to see him flourish and becoming a leader… I went the traditional way and he went his. But we’re both sitting here on this bus one seat away from each other.”
Somewhere between Ashland and Doswell, Virginia, about 90 miles south of Washington, Agnew pulled his cell phone from his ear and stood up in the center aisle. “One mic, One mic!” he called out, the cue for everyone to be quite while one person has the floor. The brim of his camouflage baseball cap with the word POWER on the front in red bobbed from side to side as he waited for quiet.
He had good news. The group was being honored with the Drum Major for Justice Award by the Memorial Foundation and the National Urban League. The award was being presented by Harry Belafonte. The bus was behind schedule and they wouldn’t make it to DC in time to formally accept the award, but the group snapped in approval, nonetheless.
“It’s kind of like Obama getting the Nobel Peace Prize,” he said. “It’s a mandate of what we still have to do… Let’s not get too drunk off the trophies. There’s still a lot more work to do. Let’s accept it humbly, because we’ve only just begun.”