Interview by Eamon Whalen
Photos courtesy of Dream Defenders
Three years ago Phillip Agnew was a graduate of Florida A&M University working a pharmaceutical sales job in Charlotte, NC. But in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing, the son of a Chicago Baptist preacher was moved to action. He packed up for south Florida and formed the Dream Defenders with his peers [he is now Executive Director], an organization led Black and Brown youth and their allies, aimed at confronting racial profiling and the criminalization of youth through direct collective action and civil disobedience.
Their first action was in 2012, where they held a 60 student, three-day, 40 mile march from Daytona Beach to Sanford symbolizing the 40 days George Zimmerman remained uncharged, where they then held protests, locking arms and blocking the door to the police department demanding an arrest. Within 48 hours, Zimmerman was arrested. Shortly after, police chief Bill Lee announced his resignation.
A year later when Zimmerman was acquitted, the DD held a 31 day occupation of Florida governor Rick Scott’s office, literally sleeping on the capitol floor pleading for the consideration of package of bills entitled Trayvon’s Law, that included ending the school-to-prison pipeline, stopping racial profiling and repealing Stand Your Ground (Florida’s infamous self-defense law). Now with DD chapters in 8 campuses across Florida, we spoke to the Agnew on the 1-year anniversary of the occupation.
What inspired you to found Dream Defenders?
What inspired all of us was the fact that this culture was on a downward spiral, especially when it came to race relations and how they treat the poor and people who are not in the mainstream of society. If you’re coming up and you’re a young person, it’s easy to see something every day that is either racist or obviously discriminatory, it’s just a part of life growing up in this country. At that time [late-2012] for me it seemed like everyone around the country was finally taking notice to the death of another young black person in the country and how inhumane it seemed.
To add insult to injury, the fact that this person [George Zimmerman] was allowed to live his daily life in a time with his family and enjoy the luxuries of being a free man while [Trayvon’s] family was mourning the loss of their son. Because of this loss, it just really seemed like we needed to do something. I knew no matter how much we marched and protested, it wasn’t going to be enough. I think all of us knew that. That really inspired us to start an organization focused on liberation, focused on educating and engagement in our communities, starting the discussion about what kind of communities we wanted to live in.
The Dream Defenders have been paralleled with organizations like the SNCC of the Civil Rights Era. Many of the gains of the Civil Rights movement have been eroded due to mass incarceration. At the same time, racial inequality is less overt. How do you motivate and mobilize in this current climate?
It’s in building relationships with people. Young people know about mass incarceration, they know about the school to prison pipeline, they know about racial profiling, police harassment, police brutality. They just might not call it those things. It’s an important role of an organizer to be able to listen and engage in discussion with individuals. So it’s that one on one, sometimes very small group interaction, so it’s very slow. It’s also the spectacle of what you do when you take over a capitol building or do any of these actions that we have either planned or engaged in.
That has kind of an alarm clock reaction for people when they see a visceral reaction that causes them to ask those questions themselves. Really seeing this union of both of those – the one on one conversations and allowing people to see themselves a part of a movement. Because their problems are joining together. The solutions can also join together. Also moving in a big spectacle of action and showing that, ‘hey this system we’ve talked about that really seems so big can also very easily be manipulated when all of us work together, or it can be jarred. We can throw a wrench in it. We may not be able to topple this building but we may be able to take some chizzles and break away at it because we’re all working together and we all have that common understanding. It may not be overt but it’s not hidden that deeply.
Can you speak on the severity of the school to prison pipeline in Florida?
One hundred percent of our youth prisons and jails are privatized. I like to speak on systems, I don’t think a black person is inherently bad, I don’t think a white person is inherently bad. This is what it is: You’ve got companies that have staked their existence upon filling up a facility. The only way if you’re operating a jail that you can guarantee that you’re gonna be able to operate a successful business and enterprise is if you can make sure that people are in that jail. The only way you can guarantee your business that people are in your jail is by guaranteeing that there will be criminals. The only way you can guarantee there will be criminals is if you work to criminalize as many natural human behaviors as you can. You couple that with incidents that are the exceptions and not the rules, like a number of school shootings and violence in schools that, I’ll add, are not typically done by black and brown folks.
You couple that hysteria, whether manufactured or real, with this need to fill up prisons and you get the school to prison pipeline. In Florida now, they’ve got zero tolerance policies that say, if a child does darn near anything, shows up late, doesn’t wear the right uniform, yells in class, this kid can be arrested. “Willful defiance” they call it. So you’ve got teachers with forty or fifty kids in their class who may not have time to handle it, or may not have been taught or instructed how to handle it, and they just call in the police. This is what we do because we don’t really like to invest the time, energy, or money to really getting to the root causes of these issues. In Florida we arrest more kids than anybody else. It roots in profit, capitalism, and in this privatization addiction that we have. It finds its support for that from hatred, from prejudice, a genuine unwillingness to see young people and people of color as human beings.
Do you see mass incarceration as the defining social issue of our generation?
I do. It is a model that is insatiable. It’s a business model that very literally consumes people. Even with slavery, if you have a slave, man, a woman or child, you would beat them, reprimand them, or any number of offenses. You wouldn’t kill them, because that slave would work a little bit to you; that was labor. With this system, what’s more evil about it is that you can kill them, you can put them in solitary confinement, you can drug them up, you can make sure they have no life and then they die and you can just replace them with another one.
This system is more evil than slavery. It’s more insidious because it hides behind what most folks believe to be is a race neutral system. If you can just do good and obey the law, this person wouldn’t be deserving of this treatment. Once we label someone a criminal or felon, most people in our society go into another part of our conscience. We’re just like, ‘well they deserve it.’ Whatever they get, they deserve because they broke the law. I do think it’s the defining issue of our generation because it is a mutant of slavery. It’s found a way to really put itself in our consciousness in a place where we can’t see it as what it truly is, which is really the most evil thing America has put out into the world.
Like you said, it’s based on a population that is taught not to empathize. How do you get it into the national conversation?
A big part of it is having folks tell their stories and bringing them out of the shadows, humanizing them. Having folks really confront in a real way their own prejudices about people who have gone to jail, or people they view as less than human, calling upon people to reconnect with their humanity and their empathy. That’s something that has been almost eviscerated in our current society through social media, through a lack of one on one contact with people, and definitely through the way law and order is painted in this country. We lose all empathy for other folks who have lived different lives or had different experiences. Without empathy, this work is going to be really, really hard. It’s humanizing those people who have been criminalized or put on the bottom rungs of society. Forcing people to gain some empathy, and that’s a lot of what the civil rights movement did.
In your state of the youth address, you quoted a Kendrick Lamar line from his song Hiiipower and borrowed some of Drake’s lines from Worst Behavior. Where do you see the role of hip hop artists?
I think they could have a huge role if people would just answer the call. It’s gonna take people to call out to them. If nobody’s asking them or holding them accountable, or saying “I don’t wanna buy your album because you talk about so many revolutionary principles but you never really have done things in my life or the life of young African-Americans.” Their role could be really huge. Because the way our system is now, consumerism and capitalism and misogyny and sexism, all the learned traits of American culture today are learned through music now. Young people are learning their place in society, how to talk to people and treat people, how to get money, through rap.
We did that in the speech for a few reasons. This line from your song is hot, we’re gonna make it something we can use for our own revolutionary purposes. It’s also for the goal of letting folks know that, yeah, we listen to the same music that you listen to. The movement isn’t in the place where if you listen to Waka Flocka or 2Chainz or Future or Young Thug that you can’t be a part of this. We’re trying to involve all the people and say, ‘hey, come to us.’ It’s not that you can’t listen to this music, but you also know this music doesn’t dictate how you live your life and it’s for entertainment purposes.
Can you get us up to date on the work of the DD since that initial occupation?
Let me be really honest with you - this is hard. When we left the capital, things were crazy. There were a lot of stuff we needed to fix. We’re building something that’s for the long haul. Starting in March, we’ve been doing trainings with new organizers trying to teach them what we started doing two years ago. It’s been really successful to the point where this summer through August, we will have trainings all over the state of Florida. We’re gonna be bringing young people and community members in and start to really build out what we want this state to look like. Jay-Z said, “we don’t believe you we need more people.” In order to build a true liberation movement, you’re gonna need a lot of folks from different walks of live. We’ll be doing a lot of listening. We’re talking to people to see what issues are important to them.
This Fall, we’re going to get very involved and make sure the candidates running in our state know we have a set of principles, values and issues that need to be talked about and address once those people are in office. The goal is to continuously build with young people in communities to exercise their independent political power, and economic and cultural power. Dr. King said “power properly understood is the power to really determine your destiny.” We want to continue to spread that message around the state and build our ranks and continue to grow this organization.
You’ve emphasized that all politics are local, and that the youth are not nearly as apathetic as they are portrayed. What would you advise young people to do to make a difference?
It’s really simply to take a stand. There are in every community, things that are immoral and ethically wrong that people are living through every day. Sometimes it takes one or two people to talk about it to set off that light for others to follow. Talk to people, listen to people, begin to find leaders that you can build with as well, build a community around leadership development, around empowering people who are directly affected by the issues. Move them into action. The lifeblood of an organization is new people, vitality. That needs to be a part of whatever anyone is doing.
A month after our interview, Mike Brown, another unarmed Black man was shot dead by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. The Dream Defenders were ever-present in the ensuing demonstrations, while Agnew appeared on various national news outlets contributing a poignant perspective from the ground level.