TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A small but determined group upset by the acquittal of George Zimmerman in Trayvon Martin’s killing ended a 31-day long protest Thursday at the Florida Capitol.
Protesters first arrived in July with a demand that Florida Gov. Rick Scott call a special session to have legislators repeal the state’s “stand your ground” law.
Scott steadfastly refused to grant the request. But Phillip Agnew, executive director of the Dream Defenders, the main force behind the protest, said that while the group was leaving, it had accomplished many of its goals, including drawing attention to state laws that his group contends discriminate against minorities.
“Our work and power has grown too big for these halls, it’s time for the movement to continue,” Agnew said. “…This isn’t the last that you will hear of the Dream Defenders. This isn’t the last you will hear of our work.”
Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, was acquitted in July of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in the shooting death last year of Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old. Zimmerman’s attorneys maintained he shot Martin in self-defense, but the delay in arresting him sparked an outcry among civil rights groups and others. Zimmerman identifies himself as Hispanic.
Zimmerman’s trial did not focus on “stand your ground” but the law was included in the jury instructions. The law — which was pushed by the National Rifle Association — eliminated the requirement that someone retreat in the face of danger and instead allows people to use deadly force.
Three days after Zimmerman’s acquittal on July 13, the protesters arrived at the Capitol. Scott did meet with Agnew and other members of the Dream Defenders, but when he refused to grant their request, they remained at the Capitol. While they would come and go during the day, many of them spent the night sleeping on the hallways just outside Scott’s office.
As the protest stretched on, the Dream Defenders — who also criticized school discipline policies and law-enforcement practices — attracted attention from national media as well from some celebrities such as Harry Belafonte. Veteran civil rights activist Julian Bond joined the group on Thursday.
House Speaker Will Weatherford eventually agreed to hold a legislative hearing to listen to both critics and supporters of the “stand your ground” law even though he predicted the House was unlikely to repeal it.
The Dream Defenders were also able to get 33 Democratic legislators to petition in writing for a special session. That triggered an official poll by the Department of State of the entire Legislature under a rarely used state law. The poll won’t be finished until next Monday, but a majority of the Republican-controlled House and Senate have already voted against the special session.
Agnew said the poll results, however, will allow the group to know “who’s for us, who’s against us.”
He said the Dream Defenders will launch a voter registration drive. Other members of the group also said they plan to return to the Capitol when lawmakers hold committee meetings in September. The Dream Defenders will also join events being held in Washington D.C. to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech.
The month-long standoff between Scott and the protesters prompted Capitol Police and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to beef up its presence in the Capitol. FDLE reported that the state had spent nearly $154,000 on overtime expenses since the protest began on July 16.
State law-enforcement authorities made the decision early on to allow the protesters to remain instead of trying to forcibly remove them. Police did limit the protesters to a specific area on the first floor – and they would not allow people to come and go once the doors were locked. Additionally, the state continued its normal practice of shutting off the air-conditioning on the weekends.
In a statement Scott thanked law enforcement for “providing a safe environment for people to exercise their First Amendment rights.”
“We live in a great state, in a great nation, where everyone is free to express their views,” Scott said.
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