Students Keep Capitol Vigil As Scott Visits Panhandle

Jul 18, 2013


In Gov. Rick Scott's absence, protesting students dug in Wednesday at the Florida Capitol for the second day of a vigil prompted by George Zimmerman's acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

After an uncomfortable Tuesday night on the stone floor of the rotunda, about 30 protesters returned to Scott's office lobby to wait for the governor, who was traveling to events in the Panhandle.

This wave of protesters arrived Tuesday morning. It was the second protest at the Capitol since the verdict Saturday night, when about 200 students marched. About 100 marched Tuesday morning, and their numbers dwindled overnight. More are arriving.

They want Scott to call a special legislative session on the controversial "stand your ground" law that was part of Zimmerman's case. And they want to talk to Scott, who has been out of town but said through a spokeswoman he doesn't think "stand your ground" should be overturned. 

Scott was in the New York area on Tuesday, touting Florida's economy at a Council of the Americas lunch and on Jim Cramer's CNBC show. On Wednesday, he went to Pensacola for a jobs announcement and a meeting with Senate President Don Gaetz and Agency for Persons with Disabilities Director Barbara Palmer, then to Panama City for an APD town hall meeting.

The governor's office Wednesday said Scott had no plans to meet with the students. The students said they weren't budging until then.

"This case is really, really, really important, and everyone here knows how important it is," said Regina Joseph, a Florida State University student. "We've all shared our stories, we've all cried about it and we're just too invested to leave. We're not going to leave until Rick Scott addresses us --- as long as it takes."

Joseph joined the Dream Defenders, a group playing a key role in the protest, last October. She said the FSU chapter has about 100 members.

The Dream Defenders are familiar with the Capitol after several actions --- including a smaller sit-in at Scott's office --- during the 2013 legislative session, when they protested juvenile-justice laws that they said channel minority youths into a "school-to-prison pipeline." Marching through a crowd of lawmakers and lobbyists on the fourth floor, they sang call-and-response songs.

"Mama, Mama, can't you see? What the state has done to me?" they sang.

Florida incarcerates more youths per capita than any of the 10 most populous states. More than 58,000 were arrested last year --- 40 percent higher than the national average. And minority youths were arrested at much higher rates.

"It's more than just (the Zimmerman verdict)," Joseph said. "It's the whole system."

Both days, as the protesters waited, they told stories of their encounters with racism. When they agreed with something said, they clicked their fingers. Some wept as they spoke.

They also worked their cell phones and laptops, drawing civil-rights veterans and other supporters to the Capitol.

"As a retired military man and disabled Vietnam vet, to see these young kids come out here and put it on the line --- I wouldn't dare let them have them come here without putting mine on the line also," said retired U.S. Army Col. Wilson Barnes.

Quincy attorney John Due was glad the students knew of his late wife, Patricia Stephens Due, who led civil rights actions to integrate downtown Tallahassee while a student at Florida A&M University in the early 1960s.

"I just appreciate that they do recognize the work that my wife and the young people did back then, so they can build upon it and not make the same mistakes," Due said. "I really appreciate how mature they are."

Karen Woodall, a lobbyist who worked with the Dream Defenders during the legislative session, brought them blankets and sweatshirts forWednesday night, their planned second night of sleeping on the floor.

Kaylee Rodall, 18, a Jacksonville high school student, came for the protest and stayed overnight. She said the floor was cold and hard, there was a lot of noise and she didn't get much sleep. "It was a struggle but it was worth it," she said. When asked if she was staying Wednesday night, she replied, "Yes! Have to."

"Obviously, people who've been fighting these battles for a long time are wanting to stand up and stand with these young people," Woodall said. "They have recognized that we have to hold people accountable, we have to change the laws that enable this kind of thing to keep happening. …That gives me hope for the future."