UF Dream Defenders chapter key in sustaining Capitol protest


This recent photo of sit-in participants at the Capitol was taken by Naliah Summers, president of the University of Florida Chapter of Dream Defenders.

Submitted photo
Published: Tuesday, July 23, 2013 at 6:18 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, July 23, 2013 at 6:18 p.m.

Nailah Summers was with her friends Lauren Byers, Herbert Polite and Trenton Brooks in the gym of a friend's apartment complex watching the TV as the verdict came down on the George Zimmerman trial.

“We were just sitting there on workout equipment watching it in complete silence,” Summers said. “We realized it was time to mobilize.”

Mobilize they did. Since Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder in the death of Trayvon Martin two Saturdays ago, Summers and her friends, all members of the University of Florida Chapter of Dream Defenders, have been busy holding community meetings, marching and organizing rallies calling for justice and unity.

They also have spent the past week traveling back and forth between Gainesville and Tallahassee, joining the contingent of students and young professionals from around the state who are occupying the State Capitol.

Summers was one of six demonstrators who met with Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday to ask him to call a special session to deal with the issues surrounding the Trayvon Martin case. Martin was the 17-year-old black teen shot in Sanford in February 2012 by Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer.

“We are here until he calls a special session,” said Summers, a rising UF senior and philosophy major who had to drop her summer classes to spend more time in Tallahassee.

Summers said the group occupying the Capitol, which hovers between 30 and 60 members each day, spends its days singing songs and conducting training sessions. At night, they are locked inside the Capitol, where they sleep on the hard floor with whatever pillows and coverings they can scrounge.

Some things they want to address include racial profiling, the state's controversial Stand Your Ground and self-defense laws, and the disproportionate number of minorities suspended from school who wind up in the state's juvenile justice system.

They have the support of others in the Gainesville community, churches and businesses that are helping sustain them while they camp out in the governor's office. People have donated clothing, toiletries and food to the students.

Their trip costs have been covered too, mostly by donations from friends at the Civic Media Center where they meet. “We haven't paid for gas,” Summers said. “The community has been putting gas in my car to get us back and forth to Tallahassee.”

Gail Johnson, owner of the Delicious Delivered catering company, said she and several volunteers from her church will be making food to take to the students in Tallahassee on Thursday. Cooking a decent meal for the students is her way of contributing to the cause, she said, since she can't leave her business or daughter for too long a time.

“I am proud of them, and I want to support them in whatever way I can,” Johnson said. “They're the ones that can do this right now. They have the time and energy to do this; I want to do this as much as I can. if I were their age I'd be out there with them.”

Summers, from Miami Beach, has been involved with Dream Defenders since its foundation in 2012 in the Dream House in Miami Lakes.

“These people are my family,” she said. “We are a bunch of young people really trying to change things.”

The activism has been there all along, she said, but the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the delay in arresting George Zimmerman, and the subsequent trial and verdict have really catalyzed many of the young people now fully committed to working for change.

The UF chapter is growing, too.

“It's funny, but a few weeks ago our core team was about five students,” Summers said. “We are getting massive amounts of emails to our Facebook page about how to get involved. We'll see come fall how many members we have.”

Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, an assistant professor of religion at UF, said she is proud of the students. They remind her of herself when she was a college student at Spelman College in Atlanta in 1962 and got involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, she said.

“What I see is sort of my own life repeating itself,” Simmons said. “They have been educating themselves.”

Not only about Trayvon Martin, she said, but about the suspension rate in the schools, the difference in drug sentencing for young offenders, the cutbacks in education. “They really spread their concern to issues beyond Trayvon Martin and justice for him,” she said.

Shamile Louis, a UF pre-law student from Orlando and a member of the Black Law Student Association pre-law division, has participated in the sit-in since Day One. She said she planned to come back to Gainesville on Wednesday to take a quiz for one of her classes at UF and then drive straight back to Tallahassee.

“It's been a life-changing experience for me,” Louis said. “You expect people to be beat down and weary, but the energy is so heartwarming and beautiful.”

She texts her friends every day, asking them to sign the petition to get Gov. Scott to hold a special session to take up the Trayvon Martin Civil Rights Act. She asks them to donate food or money if they can't get to Tallahassee.

Louis said being locked up at night in the Capitol is an interesting experience “because you don't realize how much you take for granted, like turning off the light when you go to sleep.” The lights stay on all night, and the Capitol Police keep watch over their sleeping bodies, she said.

They get a wakeup call at 7 a.m. and spring to action, gathering their blankets, covers and pillows, tidying up the office for another day of protests.

“Our bodies hurt, but in the long run it's going to be worth it,” Louis said. “Pain is temporary, but what we're striving for is forever.”

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