A new generation fights for civil rights in Florida

ORLANDO, Florida Fri Aug 23, 2013 1:33pm EDT

Julian Bond, former NAACP chairman (C), listens as Phillip Agnew, executive director of the Dream Defenders (R), announces an end of a 31-day sit-in at the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee, Florida, in this file photo from August 15, 2013. REUTERS/Bill Cotterel/Files

Julian Bond, former NAACP chairman (C), listens as Phillip Agnew, executive director of the Dream Defenders (R), announces an end of a 31-day sit-in at the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee, Florida, in this file photo from August 15, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Bill Cotterel/Files

Related Topics

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - The shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida last year shook the foundations of Phillip Agnew's comfortable life selling erectile dysfunction drugs and anti-depressants.

Outraged at police who cited Florida's "Stand Your Ground" self-defense law as a reason not to arrest neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, Agnew felt compelled to make a stand of his own.

The 28-year-old from Miami led the longest sit-in in memory at the Florida Capitol this summer. On Wednesday he will step up to the microphone in Washington to add his voice to those of President Barack Obama, former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and others commemorating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

Now a salaried field organizer for the Service Employees International Union, Agnew represents a generation of civil rights activism half a century removed from King's iconic address.

Martin's killing prompted Agnew and many others to question whether equal justice in the United States was still only a dream.

The group he helped start, which calls itself the Dream Defenders, camped for 31 days in the office of Governor Rick Scott to protest Zimmerman's acquittal in July.

"We think the political landscape of America is turning very much in favor of young people now," Agnew told Reuters. "We want people to come together and talk about the future of Florida."

Many people blamed Zimmerman's acquittal on the Stand Your Ground law, under which people in fear of their lives no longer must try to retreat before defending themselves with potentially lethal force.

As the protest progressed, the Dream Defenders broadened their platform to include other issues, including educational opportunity and drug incarceration rates.

The Dream Defenders' protest surpassed by two weeks the 2011 pro-union sit-in at the Wisconsin Capitol, which was cut off by court order.

The group, which has established chapters on six of Florida's major public college campuses, is positioning itself to play a role in the 2014 midterm elections in a state that will be pivotal in the presidential campaigns that launch soon after.

"They planted the seeds for issues and mobilization efforts that clearly are going to be evident in the 2014 election cycle," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.

Agnew met fellow Dream Defenders founders Gabriel Pendas and Ahmad Abuznaid a decade ago, when he was a student at Florida A&M University in the state capital, Tallahassee.

They got a taste of activism in 2006 while participating in marches and a two-day student-led sit-in at then-Governor Jeb Bush's office over the death of another black teen, Martin Lee Anderson, at a juvenile boot camp.

The Florida legislature subsequently closed all five state camps.

FROM SALES TO ACTIVISM

As a child of poverty, Agnew said he felt obligated upon graduation to use his business degree to secure a spot for himself in the middle class, and he took a sales job with pharmaceuticals company Eli Lilly & Co.

But his experience in the Anderson case kept tugging at his conscience.

So within weeks of Martin's killing, Agnew said he gave up his $52,000 salary ($63,000 with bonuses), rented out his house and reconnected with Pendas, who was working as a union organizer in Miami, and Abuznaid who was vacationing in Amsterdam after passing the Florida bar.

Agnew draws a connection between the Dream Defenders and the anti-war and civil rights movements of two generations ago, especially after some of the 1960s leaders such as Jesse Jackson and Julian Bond joined them briefly in the Florida Capitol.

Bond agreed. "I think it's fair to say that, in many, many ways, what happened here over the last several days is very much like what happened across the South in the days when I was a young guy," he told Reuters as the Dream Defenders were decamping on August 15.

Despite ending the sit-in, Agnew said the Dream Defenders had accomplished some of their goals, including getting the speaker of Florida's House of Representatives to call for a committee hearing next month on the Stand Your Ground law.

He said it was fitting that the 50th anniversary of King's speech was only a few days away.

"There are many comparisons to be made between today and yesterday," he said. "This is the same struggle, the same fight, the same eagerness to do something about it. And we're lucky to have these spirited young people involved in it."

(Additional reporting by Bill Cotterell in Tallahassee; Editing by David Adams and Lisa Von Ahn)

FILED UNDER:
We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
Comments (8)
SKYDRIFTER wrote:
So, what’s his complaint, specifically? I hear a lot of tribalistic rhetoric about isolated incidents – which aren’t representative of a major problem – if viewed with any degree of objectivity.

Aug 23, 2013 1:35pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
gcf1965 wrote:
Funny, kind of, but mostly infuriating. In this day when nearly every charity, fund drive, corporate outreach, government program, volunteer effort, community outreach, etc. is directed to minority, predominantly black, recipients, I get angry when I see people talking about “civil rights”. These programs are never overtly named or earmarked for any one demographic, but the code words of “under-privelged”, “urban youth”, “low-income”, “inner-city”, “disadvantaged”, etc. all mean “black”. I simply do not know how much more can be given to “black America” without actually going to work and turning over our paychecks, homes, cars, and possessions to race-baiting, poverty pimps like this looking to make a name for themselves fighting a perceived injustice that is actually the direct opposite of what they want their willing followers to believe. How about some true equality for a change, you know, work and personal responsibility, keeping your “own communities” decent and livable, promoting education and respect, teaching right and wrong (yes this is a valid concept). Civil rights is an obsolete term, lets realize that and stop trying to play the blame game ad infinitum.

Aug 23, 2013 1:45pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
cd8ed wrote:
New civil rights huh?
Simple message from the TM case: Don’t assault someone, don’t get shot dead. Equal rights exist – these new “activists” do not want equal though

Aug 23, 2013 1:49pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.