Are the Dream Defenders Keeping the Revolution Televised?

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Rapper Talib Kweli became the third high-profiled celebrity (following Harry Belafonte and Jesse Jackson) to join the Dream Defenders in their sit-in protest in the Florida Capitol last night. The group recently celebrated “a critical first step” when House Speaker Will Weatherford (R-Wesley Chapel) announced that hearings on “Stand Your Ground” would be held in the fall. Yet, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fort Walton Beach), who was picked by Weatherford to chair the meetings, has said he doesn’t “support changing one damn comma” of the law.

While the Dream Defenders have gained national media coverage and widespread support, how truly effective is their sit-in strategy? Are these protests more symbolic than they are radical? Do they have a calming, voyeuristic effect on supporters that would otherwise be active? Or is this in fact cutting-edge new leadership that reflects a changing of the old civil rights guard?

After Al Sharpton’s National Action Network (NAN) led “Justice for Trayvon” rallies in 100 cities a week after the Zimmerman verdict was rendered, national protests seemed to quickly subside. The media coverage dissipated by the day. And many feared that this global movement calling for social equality, an end to racial profiling and a racially just legal system would soon get reduced to a historical moment in which Americans adorned hoodies in solidarity.

This isn’t to say that ongoing civil disobedience is needed to reassure people of color that our best days are ahead of us. The perpetual threat of violence amidst protest adds no comfort to anyone. But a return to business as usual – to complacency and to apathy – is frightening.

Phillip Agnew, executive director of Dream Defenders, said in our interview, “There are many, many ways to bring forth democracy. We have had one legislative win. I can’t get into an argument about tactics [with our critics]. In nonviolent civil disobedience, you have to use all the tools at your disposal. We see what has happened [in civil rights efforts] before as the blueprint for us.”

On August 24th, Americans will come from across the country to Washington, DC for the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, paying homage to the same legacy of struggle that Agnew says informs the work of the Dream Defenders. The march is being hosted by Sharpton and Martin Luther King, III.

Janaye Ingram, D.C. bureau chief for NAN, says the march is part of a larger effort that also includes teach-ins and mobilization training sessions. “Marches and protests alone don’t solve a problem; they expose a problem and together with advocacy can create policy changes,” Ingram says.

When asked if the Trayvon Martin momentum was properly utilized to usher in social change, she responded, “I think a lot of young people, in particular, have had an awakening of sorts since the Zimmerman verdict and they have now committed themselves to doing something to protect themselves, their friends and their communities.” Ingram is one of countless behind the scenes young leaders who are shaping how these social justice organizational strategies unfold.

Jessica Pierce, national training director for the NAACP and a fellow member of the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), is another one. She said the NAACP has an intergenerational training and capacity-building infrastructure in place to train both in-person and online. According to her, the NAACP’s members shape the strategic direction of their campaigns and grassroots efforts at both a local and national level.

When asked how the momentum would be sustained, Pierce responded, “We will sustain this movement by engaging people online and offline, ending unjust laws like Stand Your Ground and putting in place clear protections against racial profiling. The thing is, this movement building is beyond Trayvon. We’re organizing to change policies to ensure that there is never another Trayvon Martin or another Emmett Till, and we are going to win.”

Agnew, Ingram and Pierce all emphasized that the injustice connected to Trayvon Martin is an extension of other issues. For the Dream Defenders, it’s not just about a repeal of Stand Your Ground; it’s also about putting an end to the school to prison pipeline and racial profiling.

Agnew emphasizes the need for the Dream Defenders to set their own pace and balance the high and lows of movement-building. He understands that the cameras won’t always be there. It’s in the low phase (during on the ground mobilization) that one prepares for a major moment like this he said.

Sounds like Agnew knows an important principle of community organizing: just because the revolution is not being televised doesn’t mean it’s not in our midst.

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