Columnist Vijay Prashad: Imagining a different world with the Dream Defenders

  • The Dream Defenders, with Vijay Prashad at center. Photo by Jonel Edwards

Published: 11/13/2018 8:27:09 AM

I’m in Miami for the Creative Time Summit, sitting on a stage with the writer Edwidge Danticat. We are talking about the caravan from Central America that comes northwards. Edwidge hopes to see a caravan of sensitive people go to the border as a gesture of welcome. Already a right-wing militia caravan has gone to the border — at the instigation of President Donald Trump — to join the armed forces there. I make a comment that, in a democracy, hate is so much easier to magnify than love. Someone from the audience gets up and disagrees. Love will conquer all. That is a sentiment one hears often in liberal enclaves, such as Northampton. But love is a force that requires organization. You cannot rely upon love alone to change the world. You have to build organizations that confront the forces of hate. That’s what I had experienced the day before my conversation, out in the streets of Miami, Florida with the Dream Defenders.

***

We’re standing outside a Dollar Tree store in Miami. It is a few days before the midterm elections. The Dream Defenders have fanned out to canvass the weekend shoppers. Two issues are on their horizon: to elect Andrew Gillum governor of Florida and to overturn a harsh law that denies felons the right to vote. Eight of us walk outside the cut-price shops, taking a break once in a while to eat shaved ice (one of the flavors is “Wakanda Black Panther”— mainly mango). One of the walkers, Enyer, goes one way to talk to a middle-aged man about the voter guide that the Dream Defenders have prepared. Hannah is with a group of young people, telling them about Gillum. Zaina and Jonel are near the cars, asking some seniors if they’ve already voted (they have). One in two black men is denied the vote in Liberty City, according to the Dream Defenders. Amendment Four — to let those who have paid their dues vote — is an electric issue. On Election Day, Amendment Four passes. But the race for the governor is too close to call.

It is hard to be among the Dream Defenders and not feel the enormity of their legendary beginnings. It goes back to Trayvon Martin. On Feb. 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, age 17, was shot to death by George Zimmerman for no reason. “If I had a son,” said President Barack Obama a month later, “he’d look like Trayvon.” A year later, Zimmerman was found not guilty. The Dream Defenders were ready. They marched from Daytona Beach to Sanford, Florida, where Trayvon Martin was killed, to force the state to arrest Zimmerman. They were not going to let another black teenager die without justice.

Six years before Trayvon Martin was killed, Martin Lee Anderson, age 14, died at a juvenile detention facility. No real investigation was conducted, so students from colleges in Tallahassee, Florida’s capital, formed a coalition to put pressure on the governor at the time, Jeb Bush. In their struggle, these students deepened their analysis of racism and injustice; they taught themselves how to fight back. When news of Trayvon Martin’s murder came to them, these former activists — Phillip Agnew, Ahmad Abuznaid, Ciara Taylor and others — did what they knew. They refused to let go. They formed the Dream Defenders.

At a rally in front of the state capitol in Tallahassee after Zimmerman was let off, Agnew of the Dream Defenders said, “We will not be moved.” The Dream Defenders occupied the Florida Capitol for 31 days. The Defenders had a three-point program: to end racial profiling, to end the school-to-prison pipeline and to end the stand-your-ground laws that gave Zimmerman the license to kill Trayvon Martin. This program is one step on the road to their freedom dreams.

***

The Dream Defenders have an office in the Belafonte Tacolcy Center, which is in the heart of Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood. More than 62 percent of children live below the poverty line in Liberty City; that childhood poverty rate is 95 percent higher than in any other neighborhood in the United States. This is ground zero for the fight back. Inside the office, old Halloween costumes sit in the corner, a silly counterpoint to the serious posters on the wall. The table has buttons and stickers for the Dream Defenders — and next to them copies of the Freedom Papers. After the Zimmerman verdict, the Dream Defenders took a year to clarify their thinking and their politics. Reading and conversation led them to produce a crisp assessment of the world. These Freedom Papers, which can be downloaded from their ​​​​​​website, lyrically provide a freedom dream: a world without jails and with homes, a world where children are not piggy banks and where peace is not a pipe dream. By virtue of being born, they write, people deserve lives of enrichment and not lives of alienation.

It was the activism of the Dream Defenders and their allies that got Amendment Four on the ballot. It was their sincerity that brought Andrew Gillum to pledge himself to the realization of the dream in the Freedom Papers. Gillum is not alone. Many other Democratic lawmakers signed the pledge. Perhaps they believe in the vision of the Dream Defenders. Or perhaps they know that they cannot ignore this political force. Gillum’s opponent, Ron DeSantis, used these Freedom Papers in a racist campaign against Gillum (who is black) and against the Dream Defenders. The Dream Defenders are “radical and dangerous,” said DeSantis. That is true. They are dangerous to the status quo. They want something better than DeSantis and the tired business-as-usual agenda.

It is also true that they are radical. They imagine a different world. A world, for instance, in which George Zimmerman, in his car, does not get scared of Trayvon Martin. The rain is soaking Sanford, Florida. Trayvon Martin is bored and goes out to buy some snacks. He is wearing a hoodie to protect himself from the rain.

Imagine if George Zimmerman lived in a world crafted by the ethics of the Dream Defenders. Imagine him rolling down his window and asking Trayvon Martin if he could give him a ride home. That’s the world of the Dream Defenders. It has to be our future.

Vijay Prashad is the Director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He recently edited “Strongmen,” with essays by Eve Ensler, Danish Husain, Burhan Sönmez, Lara Vapnyar and Ninotchka Rosca. He lives in Northampton.


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