Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Andrew Gillum, the first African-American candidate to win the Democratic nomination for governor of Florida, helped inspire the movement against the ”Stand Your Ground” law, launched after the murder of Trayvon Martin.
Last night Andrew Gillum became the first African-American candidate to win the Democratic Party nomination for Florida governor and it’s not out of the question to say that he can thank Trayvon Martin for that.
When Martin, an unarmed black teenager, was killed in 2012 by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida, thousands of people were mobilized and marched throughout the state after police refused to arrest Zimmerman. Among those activists was a group called the Dream Defenders, made up of mostly college students, who trekked from Daytona Beach to Sanford that year, in protest of the fact that Sanford police had gone weeks without arresting Zimmerman.
Claiming protection under the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law, Zimmerman told police that Martin attacked him and that he shot the teenager in self-defense. Zimmerman was eventually arrested, but was acquitted the following year, which spurred more protests. The Dream Defenders staged a sit-in that morphed into a month-long occupation of the Florida state capitol building in Tallahassee where they demanded to meet with Governor Rick Scott and for the legislature to repeal the “Stand Your Ground” law.
The co-founder of the Dream Defenders, Phil Agnew, said they were modeling the Dream Defenders’ efforts after a prior mass mobilization that took place in 2000, when thousands of black students stormed the governor’s chambers in Tallahassee to confront then-Governor Jeb Bush over his reversal of the state’s affirmative action policies for higher education. A leader of that mobilization was Andrew Gillum, who was then just 20 years old and a student at the historically black Florida A&M University. Gillum was also the president of the university’s Student Government Association, a mantle that Agnew would take on years later when he began attending Florida A&M.
Gillum, meanwhile, continued his political journey by becoming, in 2003, the youngest person ever elected to Tallahassee’s city commission. He was just 23 years old. And Gillum was still a city commissioner in 2013 when Agnew and the Dream Defenders led the takeover of the state capitol in Tallahassee. Gillum supported them despite the controversy around the militant direct action. The following year, Gillum was elected mayor of Tallahassee.
“This is a person who was actually at the center of building a movement in the state of Florida,” said Agnew. “So the through-line [from Martin to Gillum’s win] for me is very, very clearly there through the movement that the death of Trayvon spurred.”
Agnew and the Dream Defenders were instrumental in securing Gillum’s historic win in Florida’s governor’s race. They knocked on doors, registered voters, and helped draw out African Americans and young voters in record numbers for a mid-term election. Gillum trailed the two Dem favorites, Gwen Graham and Philip Levine, for most of the campaign. However, he pulled off a come-from-behind victory last night with the help of a swell in young, black voters, mainly from the largely black Duval County and Miami-Dade and Broward counties in the southern tip of Florida.
Would not be surprised if the polling miss in FL Dem gov primary partly because pollsters underestimated turnout of Gillium supporters like youth and persons of color. That enthusiasm could be critical in the general— Michael McDonald (@ElectProject) August 29, 2018
Though now a national organization, the Dream Defenders are based in Miami, where they have continued to stage rallies, voter drives, and demonstrations. They are still protesting the gun violence and “Stand Your Ground” laws that claimed Trayvon Martin’s life, and even linked causes with the student activists who survived the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings in Parkland, Florida, earlier this year. Meanwhile, Gillum has been embroiled in the fight for better gun control laws throughout his career as an elected official. As Tallahassee mayor he duked it out in court with both state and national gun lobby powers to protect the city’s ordinance forbidding the firing of weapons in public parks. That legal battle was as much about gun control as it was about preemption, given that the state of Florida was overriding city gun ordinances.
“We’re trying to help people understand that their lives are impacted when the legislature comes in and says that the people that they worked hard to elect—their mayors, their school board members, their city council members—no longer have the power to pass laws and ordinances that are consistent with the values of their community,” Gillum told Ebony last year. ”That’s what’s at stake here. Pre-emption’s a big word but really what it is, is that this is the taking of power from people.”
Gillum has also called for Governor Scott to suspend the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law until the legislature provides greater clarity on when and how it can be used. A Trayvon Martin docu-series currently running on BET and the Paramount Network has kept the “Stand Your Ground” discussion afloat on the political landscape. A win in the November general election for Gillum would assure that the “Stand Your Ground” issue might even get resolved. The victory Gillum secured last night, though, was propelled in large part by the movement in Florida to repeal those laws—a movement led by a group, the Dream Defenders, that Gillum inspired.
On the last day of the 2013 capitol takeover, when the Dream Defenders finally left the building after their month-long standoff, the activists promised each other that they were going to return in a few weeks to confront Governor Scott again. However, the labor of organizing and growing their movement suspended those plans indefinitely. Agnew said that Gillum’s win last night might restore that goal.
“In November we’re going to have the opportunity to deliver on that promise and be back in the governor's office,” said Agnew. “But this time we won’t be protesting against a governor who won’t listen to us. We’ll be occupying that office for the next four years with somebody who actually comes from the movement.”