In Boca Raton on Monday, the presidential candidates will be greeted by young activists with questions not covered in the debates – about a broken criminal justice system, an education system that leaves young people in debt for life, about immigrant detention centers and for-profit prisons.
The Presidential debate Tuesday, October 16 saw multiple mentions of Planned Parenthood, a question about gun violence and one about pay equity, and an argument between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama as to whether Romney did or did not call Arizona’s anti-immigrant “Papers, Please” SB 1070 “a model for the nation.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the improved questions at this debate, though pre-selected and approved by the moderator Candy Crowley, came from the audience, self-described undecided voters. (Unlike professional moderator Martha Raddatz at the vice-presidential debate, none of the voters introduced actual falsehoods into the conversation – that was for the candidates to do.)
That said, there were still many issues not discussed at all, mentioned too briefly, or casually dismissed because both parties simply agree on them. Next Monday, October 22, the final presidential debate will be in Boca Raton, Florida, the home of the nation’s second-largest private prison company, and the candidates will be greeted by a group of young activists who have more questions for them – questions about a broken criminal justice system and an education system that leaves young people in debt for life, questions about immigrant detention centers and for-profit prisons. Questions about the future that they face.
The Dream Defenders are not calling to return to or rebuild an American dream that never really existed. They evoke a very different legacy:
We are the sons and daughters of slaves and farm-workers. We are Dreamers and the products of a generation that had a Dream. We are ‘We Shall Overcome’ and ‘Si se puede!’ We are Phoenix and Selma, the Freedom Rides & the Trail of Dreams, Suffrage & Solidarity.
We are products of a dream deferred. We are witnesses to a dream damaged and destroyed. We are Florida and Alabama. We are diverse: students, alumni, black, brown, and white, young and old. We are dedicated to defending the dream etched in our memories by Dr. Martin Luther King: that we are all created equal and possess equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
“It’s tremendously inspiring what I’ve seen in the Dream Defenders; at some point all of our different struggles have a lot more in common than not in common,” Steven Pargett, a Dream Defender organizer, explained. “We’re coming together to combat those things with honesty and love. It’s very powerful.”
Their network was formed after the February 26 shooting of young Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. George Zimmerman, the man who shot Martin, remained free, and in April, a group of Florida students and alumni organized a march from Daytona to Sanford – some 40 miles in three days – and held a sit-in outside the Sanford police department.
“We sat outside a police station blocking the doors,” Ciara Taylor, a Florida A&M graduate and Dream Defenders organizer, told Truthout, “hoping to get a response from police officers as to why they hadn’t arrested George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin. We ended up shutting down the police station and got our concerns heard.”
Just a few days later, Zimmerman was arrested. But the Dream Defenders’ work was far from over, and the coalition has continued to grow and expand. Now they’re looking to change the debate – not just the presidential debates, though they will be in Boca Raton Monday to be sure the voices of young people, people of color, voters and those who cannot vote, are heard. “We’re talking about the biggest forum that there is, to talk about the biggest issues that are plaguing our country,” Pargett said.
On Twitter, the Dream Defenders started the hashtag #ChangeTheDebate, and have been tweeting issues that have been conspicuously left out of the debates. Their goal is to raise awareness and to push for a real public discussion of these issues – not just a quickie soundbite from either candidate, but a real discussion.
In addition to the presidential debate Monday, it is also a national day of action on police brutality. “With us having the luxury of having the presidential debates in our backyard, we’re having a rally to send a message to the presidential candidates that this is an important issue affecting our country, our youth, which is a big voting bloc,” Taylor said. “It’s our way of being a microphone for these issues, to hope they begin to talk about them.”
“One of my first memories as a child is being at our immigration lawyer’s office, for something that was going to be protecting us,” Paula Zamudio, an organizer with Dream Defenders, told Truthout. Her family is from Colombia, but she came to the US when she was 18 months old. Her father was denied legal status when she was sixteen. “My only thought was ‘How do I pay for college?’ It never occurred to me not to go school,” she said. But as an undocumented student, she would have to pay out-of-state tuition prices despite having spent most of her life in Florida.
“I’m 24; I still have 15 classes to go to get my double major; I can only pay for one or two classes every semester,” she explained. “If you think about undocumented families, they’re working very low-paying jobs; we’re barely making ends meet, paying $18,000 a year, that’s pretty much how much the family makes a year.”
She found Dream Defenders while applying for deferred action, which would halt the deportations of DREAM-eligible young people. When she heard them speak, connecting her issues to others faced by black and brown youth, she said, it inspired her to get involved. “You never read about this in the newspaper. I’m a newspaper addict.”
Zamudio was extremely happy when the second presidential debate finally mentioned immigration – but disappointed with the results. She noted that though they didn’t mention the DREAM Act (which would give undocumented youth who attend college or join the military a path to citizenship), they did both make some reference to citizenship opportunities. But she was taken aback by Obama’s comment about deporting “gangbangers.” “Sometimes they don’t even think about their rhetoric,” she noted. “My friends say [illegal] and it’s like, ‘You’re just making me feel tinier than I already am.’ It makes me feel like I’m a bad human being. I’m not doing anything illegal.”
Taylor was likewise disappointed with Obama’s brief mention of gun violence. “Our president often boasts that he’s from the south side of Chicago, but hardly makes any mention of the killings that were going on there, the violence that has been created,” she said. “He did bring up Chicago, he did bring up lightly women’s pay, but the thing is it was just brought up, it wasn’t discussed.”
And as for Romney on gun violence? “It was typical: they don’t want gun violence and they see that this is hurting our nation, but freedom and blah blah blah.”
“What hit me the most was at no point in time did they really get into education or into the criminalization that’s going on in our country,” Zamudio continued. “It’s not even a topic of debate. We all know crime has gone down since the ’90s, yet we have more prisoners now than we have since the ’80s. People aren’t aware of how much money is invested into detention centers and how much money is invested into prisons as opposed to something that is much more needed, like education.”
“They always talk about the middle class; they never talk about the people who are under that. I definitely have fallen underneath that line,” Taylor said, noting that Mitt Romney has no idea what actual “middle income” even is. (In an interview with George Stephanopoulos, the former Massachusetts governor defined “middle income” as $200,000 to $250,000 “and less.”)
The Dream Defenders, though they won’t give too many details on their planned action yet, intend to be outside the debate on Monday to bring their issues to the media, the audience, and of course, to social media.
“We want to talk about privatization of prisons, criminalization of our youth,” Taylor said. They want to hear the candidates – and the rest of the country – talk about civil rights for felons who’ve served their time, the drug war, the inequalities in the public school system. “We want to talk about living wage; we want to talk about equal pay; we want to talk about universal health care,” Taylor continued. “I want to talk about people with disabilities and their access to our everyday lives. Transportation’s an issue.”
One issue especially close to them, as they’ll be in the hometown of private prison company GEO Group, is the for-profit incarceration industry. “The more prisons get privatized, the more money they’re making out of bodies,” Zamudio said. “They just want to have more people in there to make money. They’re trying to find any and every reason to get us to go to prison, just to have that one-night stand – they’re making $80 or $100 bucks off of you.”
“These communities have issues and we’re not helping them; we’re sending them to prison,” Pargett agreed.
“One of the campaigns we’re working on right now is in Polk County. There’s no more juvenile detention centers; they’re sending underage minors as young as 11, 12 years old to big boy jail. Talk about post-traumatic stress: there are grown people who go to jail and never come out the same, what about the 12 year old you send in there? What is their future going to look like? Are we really giving them a chance?”
If she could ask the candidates one question, Zamudio said, she’d ask “What’s going to happen with my parents? I have an opportunity to work for a bank; I could possibly get a work visa out of that, but what about my parents? They raised me; they work hard; they’re good people.”
For DREAM-eligible youth like her, even if the DREAM Act is passed, her family won’t see the benefits. They’ll have to wait for her to get legal status and then for her to request them. “By the time they get their residency cards they’ll be like 70 years old,” she noted. “It’s a very broad question, but what’s going to happen to us?”
Pargett also wants the candidates to get serious about climate change. “It’s really scary that in terms of the planet’s health it’s crunch time; it’s game time, but we have to tiptoe around these conversations because of the interests that are at play,” he said. “These are the presidential candidates. They need to really display some massive leadership around this issue.”
Many of the Dream Defenders are current or recent college students who want to see some changes to the education system – particularly around access to higher education. Zamudio is part of the fight for in-state tuition for undocumented students, which would make it possible for her and students like her to take more than one class at a time (or to avoid massive debt from private student loans, as they’re also ineligible for federal student loans). “My majors are finance and economics. For all you know, I could fix the economic crisis right now,” she said. “For all you know, an undocumented person could be the person who has the cure for cancer, but we’re not giving that person the chance.”
These young organizers know that the candidates want to reach young voters – which makes them skeptical of purely political moves even as they apply pressure to the candidates. As they arrive Monday in Boca Raton, part of their message is that young people are active, are paying attention, and will be a force to reckon with in the much-vaunted swing state of Florida. “Obama talks a good game, but it’s all surface-y to us,” Taylor said. “I definitely see the changes that he’s made for us – I agree with the health care law – but we’re not taking care of the war on our youth at home.”
Zamudio noted, “I have friends that know that I cannot vote and they’re going to vote on issues that matter to me.”
And Pargett said, “The best that we can do is to continue to push those conversations, to get [the candidates] to a place that’s as real as we can get them. That’s our job, and we’re going to do it.”