Curtis Hierro speaks into the phone like he's talking into a bullhorn. The passion the 26-year-old Dream Defenders field director has used to get himself and fellow occupiers through more than four weeks in the Florida statehouse is evident in his voice. He's ready for their 30th (and what will turn out to be their final) night there, despite an announcement that the state will test the building's fire alarms from 8 pm to midnight. That'll make it hard to get a moment's peace, let alone sleep. But Hierro takes it in stride, as he did when the "Star Wars" theme went blaring at dawn, the weekends when getting access to a shower was tough, and other challenges that make putting one's body on the line to achieve a political goal a test of endurance.
"That's expected in this work, and we've made sure that everyone who comes in this space knows our norms and that we're nonviolent," Hierro said. "They're trying to provoke us so they can discredit us and kick us out."
Since July 16 — three days after the George Zimmerman verdict was announced — Hierro and between a dozen and 60 other Dream Defenders had camped out in Gov. Rick Scott's office, demanding a special legislative session and the consideration of Trayvon's Law, a bill crafted in collaboration with state legislators and the NAACP. The young Floridians are using the direct action tactics its founders honed in a previous takeover of the statehouse and in a march they organized after Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin in an effort to turn this post-verdict moment into a movement.
In doing so, they joined others around the country who are turning to civil disobedience and strategic protest as a way to force change, or at least create the conditions for a new conversation about issues ranging from racial profiling to the death penalty, workers' rights, long term solitary confinement and immigration policy. A spirit similar to the one that motivated 250,000 people to converge on Washington, D.C. 50 years ago this month is moving today. And much of that spirit is being harnessed and directed by millennials.
Young people are filling a role they've held in organizing throughout history, says Cathy Cohen, a University of Chicago political science professor and founder and director of the Black Youth Project. The students who led sit-ins at lunch counters and boarded buses to challenge segregation were part of that vanguard during the civil rights era. Today’s organizers who use direct action, from the Dream Defenders to the Dream 9, are part of that legacy.
"Young people don’t always have to think about mortgages and jobs and childcare and are freer to engage in a certain kind of risk that as you get older you’re less likely to get involved in," Cohen says.
People in their 20s and early 30s also backed Barack Obama by more than a two-to-one ratio in 2008, and now they're frustrated by the pace of progress through institutional channels. But if North Carolina is any indication, that frustration hasn’t led them to stop believing in the power of the ballot box. Young people wereat the forefront of some of the Moral Mondays demonstrations there, particularly those that called out the state GOP's efforts to restrict access to the polls through a new law that requires photo ID, shortens the early voting period and ends the same-day registration option. More than 900 North Carolinians were arrested during the 13 weeks that Moral Mondays protests took place at the Raleigh statehouse, drawing attention to conservative attacks on abortion rights, wages and jobs. The intergenerational group of protestors had a clear effect, and approval ratings for the Republican governor and Republican-controlled legislature are down.
Black Youth Project's Cohen said the 24-hour news cycle and the speed at which information travels via social networks has given young people a new understanding and sense of urgency of how high the stakes are.
"Given that reality that’s in their faces and the infrastructure for mobilization that's developing, there’s an opportunity for young people to engage in direct action in a way that is hopeful for all of us," she said.