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Protesters Plan Vote Drive, But Stay Put In Capitol

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The first wave of Dream Defenders around the Capitol Rotunda. (Source: dreamdefenders.org)

The first wave of Dream Defenders around the Capitol Rotunda. (Source: dreamdefenders.org)

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Trayvon Martin

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/FNS) – The “People’s Session,” a mock legislative session put-on by the protesters still upset with the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, is over but the protesters still don’t plan on leaving the hallway near Scott’s office—and they have also established a new goal.

The Dream Defenders remain in the hallway near Governor Rick Scott’s office for over three weeks now—24 days to be exact.

The mock legislative session was called to raise awareness to the group’s priorities. On the final day of the “People’s Session,” they passed three bills and a joint resolution listing their priorities.

Before that, the group promoted its newest goal which is registering 61,550 new voters in time for the next election in 2014.

“Keen political minds will know the relevance of that number,” said Phillip Agnew, executive director of Dream Defenders. “Indeed, it is the number [of votes] that Rick Scott won by.”

Agnew painted the registration drive as strictly nonpartisan, saying the Dream Defenders would encourage those they registered “to vote in the name of their issues, not in the name of any candidate” — but the implication of a threat to Scott, who has rebuffed the protesters’ calls for a special legislative session, was unmistakable.

Many of the demands the Dream Defenders issued Thursday were the same as those they have been making for more than three weeks. They want a special session that would re-examine the state’s controversial “stand your ground” self-defense law, the end of zero-tolerance school discipline policies that they say derail students for often trivial offenses, and initiatives meant to combat racial profiling.

The protesters have remained at the Capitol after Zimmerman, 29, was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in the shooting death of Miami Gardens teen Trayvon Martin. While Zimmerman’s defense team did not use the “stand your ground” law, the debate over the shooting at times focused on it.

House Speaker Will Weatherford has announced that the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the self-defense law, but the chairman of that panel has already said he opposes any changes. In any case, the protesters said, simply holding a hearing on one demand isn’t enough.

“That’s why we’re still here and fighting, and will continue to do whatever it takes to have all of Trayvon’s Law (the group’s demands) considered by lawmakers,” said Yakiara Gonzalez, from the Florida State University chapter of Dream Defenders.

Even with the beginning of the school year coming up for many of the college-age protesters, Agnew said the group had no intention of calling off the protests. In fact, he suggested that out-of-town students returning to schools like Florida A&M University and FSU could serve as reinforcements.

But the group is clearly broadening its strategy.

“We will indeed stay,” Agnew said. “But this is just one tactic, one tool in our toolbox to continue to build power for our communities.”

At least one legislative leader appears to be losing patience with the demonstration.

“They’re exercising their constitutional rights, but I think there is a point in which, even from their perspective it can be counterproductive,” said Senate President Don Gaetz, while attending an economic development meeting in Destin.

Gaetz said he’s heard from some legislators who, while sympathetic to the plight of the Dream Defenders, contend the protesters are hurting their cause. But Gaetz, who didn’t offer names of the legislators, hasn’t talked to Scott about the protesters.

The protesters have been allowed to stay under the watch of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which takes its directions from Scott.

“As far as I’m concerned, as long as they’re not obstructing traffic, acting in a peaceful, non-violent way, as long as they don’t get to the level of those who tried to occupy the governor’s office in Wisconsin, how can I criticize the governor?” Gaetz said.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has estimated the protests have cost the state almost $350,000, including more than $140,000 in overtime costs for Capitol police, but Scott doesn’t seem overly concerned about that.

Asked Thursday about the overtime estimates by the FDLE and why he has allowed the protesters to remain in the Capitol, Scott replied: “I always want to watch how every dollar is spent, but I also want people to have the opportunity to express their views.”

(©2013 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.)

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