Dream Defenders head: Stand Your Ground only part of problem

The Dream Defenders spent three days this year conducting a sit-in at Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s office, advocating for a repeal of the “Stand Your Ground” law. After a meeting with the governor that led to no concrete action, the Dream Defenders occupied the capital building for 31 days, calling for a hearing on the legislation. In November, the Florida House of Representatives Criminal Justice Subcommittee considered a proposal to repeal Stand Your Ground. That proposal was rejected.

Dream Defenders executive director Phillip Agnew told host Melissa Harris-Perry on Saturday that the organization will continue working to repeal Stand Your Ground laws in Florida, but that they also plan to focus on systemic problems impacting youth in the state.

"Stand Your Ground is just one branch [of] a really poisonous tree that shows how Florida cares about its young people," Agnew said on Saturday's Melissa Harris-Perry. "And at the root of that tree is prejudice, profiling and prisons for profit."

Stand Your Ground laws came to national attention after the February 26, 2012, shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, who was acquitted of second-degree murder after claiming self-defense. Florida was the first state to have a Stand Your Ground law; after it passed in 2005, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) adopted the bill as model legislation to push in other states. As a result, today more than 20 states have passed versions of the Stand Your Ground law, with Ohio poised to become the latest.

The Dream Defenders are one of several organizations that formed after Martin’s death, part of what msnbc reporter Trymaine Lee described on Saturday as “a broad new generation of activists.” As part a panel discussion on MHP, Lee said the organization’s work is a return to a different type of activism. “For the first time in a long time, Jena Six before it, it wasn’t a high-minded policy kind of thing,” Lee said. “It’s right here on the ground. Do our lives have value?" 

READ: Trymaine Lee gets on the bus with the Dream Defenders en route to the March on Washington

The Nation columnist Ari Berman likened the Dream Defenders to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a student organization that played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement. "They didn’t wait for someone to give them something; they went out and did it themselves and brought, through direct action, public attention to a huge outrage," Berman said of SNCC. He stated that 2013 featured many "echoes of the 1960s" in regards to civil rights and movement building, leading to the rise of "a new generation of civil rights activists looking back for inspiration and trying to adapt it to today."

Agnew, calling it "an honor" to have the Dream Defenders compared with SNCC, said their example has been an inspiration to his organization. "SNCC was a college-based organization focused on building trained, indigenous leadership communities," Agnew said. "As we move forward that’s where our focus is going to be – moving from a college-based focus into communities."

Although they’ve received the most attention for their work to repeal Stand Your Ground, the organization has also been organizing against the school-to-prison pipeline and prison privatization. In 2014, they will focus on mobilizing youth to build electoral power. Agnew said they intend to do this by drawing on young peoples’ awareness of their power as "an emerging demographic, an emerging majority of people that can shift the political discourse."

The Dream Defenders also plan to shape the political conversation in Florida, particularly the platform points of candidates in the 2014 gubernatorial election. Agnew said the organization will work to ensure all politicians include mass incarceration and the rise of private prisons on their platforms. "It’s the number one defining issue of our generation," Agnew said. "And that’s what we’re going to be fighting from here on out."