The Dream Defenders: Transforming to Serve

I will never forget the year 2012. On February 26th, a tremor quaked from small, sunny Sanford, Florida and set off a series of transformational events that shifted the nature of collective consciousness.

The Dream Defenders were born several weeks later and I joined forces with this group of organizers in Florida who were fed up with the status quo. We were angry, confused, disenchanted yet energized, each trying to make sense of the world in our way. We came from all walks of life: lawyers, artists, college radicals, and labor organizers. Together we founded an organization that honored history, harnessed the passion of the present, and adopted the newest technologies to agitate, educate, and organize like few before us.

When we came together in 2012, our primary concern was confronting the problems of the criminal justice system. The state of Florida killed Trayvon Martin and thousands of others every single day. George Zimmerman may have pulled the trigger, but Florida gave him the gun. The media told him to be afraid of Black people, while the NRA protected him. We knew that our friends and families were dying not just from gun violence, but the violence of starvation, poverty, neglect, and crumbling schools and homes. We focused not only on his murder but on the systemic conditions that led to his death: the Stand Your Ground Law that protected George Zimmerman, the racial profiling that flourished in Florida, and the Zero Tolerance policies that forced Trayvon from his school to his father’s home on that fateful night.

Our work soon focused on addressing the problem of private prisons in the United States. We immediately began to look at Florida-based GEO Group, the world’s second largest private prison company. We found that their facilities spanned the globe, that they were making billions jailing poor people from Florida to Australia, and Israel. This realization compelled us to adopt an international focus. We also traveled to Palestine, Mexico, Brazil, and South Africa in solidarity with freedom movements.

Our experiences taught us that no activist could be in the business of revolution if they refused to acknowledge that our freedom in the United States is complicit in the exploitation of millions of people in other countries. The “freedoms” that we enjoy are largely a result of that very exploitation.

We were motivated by several developments in our communities and across the nation. We had witnessed the state of Georgia murder Troy Davis in what seemed to be a collective execution. We had also witnessed the murder of Trayvon Martin, which captured the imagination of thousands of people across the nation.

2012 changed my world forever. The Dream Defenders changed my life. As Mary Hooks says, I was “transformed in the service of the work.” Until then, I had known nothing but anger. I was depressed and lost in the world. Dream Defenders members and leaders poured into me, challenged me, and rescued me. This remains the magic of it. We have a soul, a vibe, a love that moves people, inspires them, gives them respite and purpose.

The message of the Dream Defenders is clear: we hold power. We can change our nation and the world. In the “Age of Trump” — an era of untruths, misogyny, racism, isolationism, and narcissism — the work of the Dream Defenders offers us a pathway forward.

About the Author

Phillip Agnew is a senior writer for The North Star, and the co-founder of Dream Defenders. His work in community organizing and art has been highlighted in various outlets, including MSNBC, BET, PBS, Democracy Now, ESSENCE, and Time Magazine. In 2018, he transitioned from his role as co-director of the Dream Defenders.