Trayvon Martin's death, and George Zimmerman's delayed arrest last year, were the catalysts that brought the Dream Defenders together at Florida A&M University in April 2012.
But as the group of young demonstrators becomes a statewide civil-rights organization — borrowing a page from the peaceful protesters who staged the sit-ins of the 1960s — they say personal experience is fueling their passion.
Attracting the attention of celebrities —Harry Belafonte paid them a visit on Friday — the Dream Defenders have occupied the halls of Gov. Rick Scott's office in Tallahassee for nearly two weeks to take on Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law and racial profiling, which they say led to Trayvon's death.
For Marie Paul, 22, a University of Central Florida student who grew up in Fort Lauderdale, her memories of racial profiling go back to elementary school. She said she knew something was wrong before she was old enough to understand.
She remembered watching a white woman rush to grab her purse as Paul, not more than 12 at the time, walked past in a laundromat. And she remembered the repeated televised police takedown operations — usually involving black or Hispanic suspects — on the long-running reality show "Cops."
"I remember feeling kind of insulted," Paul said. "I remember thinking at one time that there are all these people (on 'Cops') that look like me, and I kept thinking, is no one else committing crimes?"
The stories of the other Dream Defenders are similar. They include tales of strangers clutching purses and crossing streets to avoid perceived trouble, watchful stares from retail staff and store owners, and undeserved police scrutiny that is disproportionately directed at young minorities.
Those disparities are what unite the Dream Defenders, said Paul, vice president of the UCF chapter and the vice chairperson for the seven statewide chapters.
The group converged on the Capitol on July 16, three days after a six-woman jury handed down a not-guilty verdict in Zimmerman's high-profile murder trial. Zimmerman is the Neighborhood Watch volunteer who shot Trayvon in Sanford on Feb, 26, 2012.
According to Florida Department of Law Enforcement estimates, more than $50,000 was spent in overtime pay for security in the first ten days of the sit-in.
The young protesters have received much criticism from social-media users who think they are wasting time and money.
But the Dream Defenders have found plenty of supporters, too. One from Washington, D.C., sent enough pizza to feed 70 protesters last weekend.
Others sent pillows, blankets and hygiene products to help make the sit-in more comfortable, even though the air conditioning gets turned off on weekends, air mattresses were banned as a fire hazard, and the lights stay on at night as they try to sleep.
The group, made up mostly of minority college students, have one demand: They want Scott to call a special legislative session to discuss the repeal of Florida's "stand your ground" law.
Dream Defenders want to replace "stand your ground" with "Trayvon's Law," which will require law enforcement to create policies that prevent racial profiling and end what they call the school-to-prison pipeline — the funneling of young people from public schools into the juvenile justice system or jail with "zero-tolerance" rules.
Until they get it, they say, blankets and plastic bins full of food and supplies will line the hall outside Scott's office every night.
Scott met with the group on July 18 — the third day of the sit-in — and denied their request for a special session, though he called for a day of prayer. Days later, Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters also spoke with the Dream Defenders. Neither meeting appeased the protesters.
"The time for talk has passed," said Ciara Taylor, political director for the Dream Defenders.
Taylor called the issues facing black and Hispanic youth "a state of emergency" and continued to ask for a special session after both meetings.
But according several community leaders who spoke on a panel for a forum held at a downtown Orlando church, there's little chance that Scott, who supports "stand your ground," will meet their demand.
Panelist Regina Hill, a community activist who intends to run for a seat on the Orlando City Commission, was frank: "There's nothing that our senators or House representatives can do without the governor calling a special session," she said.
She said the key to making a change is to register voters and encourage people to go to the polls for every election.
"I'm confident the governor is not going to budge, but we can do something in 2014."
State Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, thinks there is still hope and said the pressure from the protesters and community members could force Scott to act.
"If the legislators hear from you ... we can bring about a change," she said. "Let's not sit here and be defeated and say, 'Well, if they don't call a special session, nothing is going to change' ... (The Dream Defenders) say they are going to stay there until something changes. That's the attitude we have to have."
Even without a special session, UCF political science Professor Aubrey Jewett says the protesters may still be able to count it as a victory if, when the 2014 session comes, the issues are still on the minds of voters and lawmakers.
The Dream Defenders say they're standing firm.
"It's like people don't realize how serious this situation is," Paul said. "Lives are at stake. They don't know what they are up against. Anything worth having is not going to be easy, and we're not leaving until we get that special session."
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