Voices from Florida’s Occupied Capitol

Source: Yes Magazine

Daniel Agnew, Melanie Andrade, and Jabari Mickles are members of a group that occupied Florida’s capitol building after the Zimmerman acquittal.

On the night of Monday, July 15, members of a social justice group called Dream Defenders spent their first night on the hard marble floors of the state capitol building in Tallahassee, Fla. Last night, they spent their tenth night there. In the interviews that follow, three of them explain the most recent developments, their reasons for taking action, and what they hope to change.

Dream Defenders originally formed in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., and the group had been hard at work throughout its first year building local chapters in cities like Gainesville, Orlando, and Jacksonville.

But after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Martin in February of 2012, the group went into what it calls a “state of emergency.” Drastic injustice called for drastic action, organizers with the group say, and that’s when they moved into the state’s capitol building, transforming it into a collective office, community organizing center, and temporary home.

Florida governor Rick Scott met with the Defenders last Thursday, but members of the group say they weren’t satisfied with the meeting. They vowed to continue their occupation until he calls a special legislative session to address the injustices that underlie the killing of Martin and the acquittal of Zimmerman.

Many of the Defenders spent last weekend locked inside the building, where they conducted marathon sessions in training, planning, and community building. There was even a church service with local pastors on Sunday.

After interviewing the Dream Defenders on several occasions, we at YES! decided to present their inimitable voices to you at length. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation with three of the group’s organizers: Daniel Agnew, Melanie Andrade, and Jabari Mickles. All three are camping out in the capitol building.

(Please click on the Soundcloud links below to hear these occupiers’ words in their own voices.)

Daniel Agnew, 24 years old

James Trimarco: Hi, Daniel. I’d like to hear a little bit about the weekend. You were inside the capitol building for a couple of days. What was that like?

Agnew: It was absolutely amazing, man. On Friday at 5:00, of course, they closed the doors on us. And throughout the weekend, nobody could come in, but everybody who was there had to stay in. We had 35 to 40 people stay the entire weekend with us. We did a lot of relational building and we did a lot of organizing for this coming weekend.

It was incredible because on Saturday around 2:00, we had 30 to 40 people outside come support us and pretty much stay the entire day with us. They were pretty much camped outside and the only reason why they didn’t sleep outside was because it started to rain.

Trimarco: And so you guys were separated from them by a window. How did you interact with them through the window?

Agnew: We wrote signs and then we called some people that were outside. We introduced ourselves and they showed their support, and we started singing. So we had them on speakerphone and we let them lead some of the chants and some of our songs. And we started singing and talking. We had a mother and her daughter come from—I want to say North Carolina—and they drove down all the way here to support us. Then on Sunday we actually had a church service at the capitol.

Trimarco: Did you guys just hold it yourselves inside the capitol, then?

Agnew: A representative from the Democratic Party, he actually has access in and out. So he was able to have two ordained ministers come in and actually hold the service for us.

Trimarco: Dale Landry from the Tallahassee branch of the NAACP told me that he was interested in bringing some retired people in to join you guys for the weekend.

Agnew: It was two older ladies who actually slept in the weekend with us. It was two white ladies. And they actually stayed in all the way to Sunday. Of course it was very, very, very uncomfortable on the floor. But they held on and they stayed until Sunday with us.

Trimarco: What was it like camping out with some people from a different generation?

Agnew: Ah man, it’s amazing. They fuel our fire as well as us fueling theirs, although they were tired and fatigued. The weekend allows us to actually get to know each other on a more personal level. So they expressed their concerns with what’s going on in this system of ours, and vice-versa. So we pretty much fed off each other, and that’s what created the relationships that we have now with them.

Trimarco: I read on the Dream Defenders Twitter feed that the police have banned sleeping bags in the capitol building. Are there other problems that you’ve encountered?

Agnew: OK. So you know, [the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has] actually had some paperwork come out and they’re trying to make us look like we’re not here for a purpose and that we’re just young vigilantes, right?

So, they put out some statistics. And they were saying that it costs the state $97,000 to “house” us. And the security and the staff are getting hurt by this. Then we calculated the amount of money it takes daily to hold a special session, [which is the Dream Defenders’ main demand]. And it takes $35,000 a day to hold a special session of the legislature. And so we combat it with, “If you would work with us, we would have no reason to be here.” And they try to make reports and make out to the media that we’re just young and dumb.

Today we have an organization called PICO [coming], and they’re a faith-based organization, so it’s church leaders from around the nation who are coming and joining us, as well as a bus of 80 students from Boston, Washington, and one other state. They’re coming down on the bus and they’re pretty much gonna stay the weekend with us.

And then tomorrow—Harry Belafonte has personally been on the phone with us—and he’ll be out here tomorrow as well. We have a rally from 2:00 to 5:00. It’s gonna be huge. I’m excited to have my family coming out here as well. So it’s gonna be a really really big day, these next couple of days.

And most of the groups that are coming down will be staying the weekend, so our number pretty much doubled from last week.

Trimarco: How many people do you estimate are going stay over this weekend?

Agnew: This might be way less than what it really is, but I want to say a strong 80 people.

Trimarco: Now I’m going ask some questions that take it back to the beginning. So, give me a sketch of why you’re occupying the capitol.

Agnew: The capitol is the source of power that we need to change things. There has been a lot of protest. There has been a lot of sit-ins. There has been a lot of rallies. We’re not that. We do that but we’re not that. That doesn’t define us. We understand that we have to go right to the source of power and we have to fight with them in order to make real change. That’s why we’re at the state capitol, because that’s where things change.

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