Dream Defenders (DD)

Dream Defenders (DD)


* Seeks to cultivate “a new generation” of young radical activists
* Views the United States as a racist nation where deep poverty and a “vicious cycle of disenfranchisement, discrimination and depression” plagues nonwhite minorities
* Laments “the greed of a corporate class” whose “record profit[s]” stand in sharp contrast to a public school system that is “underfunded”

Established in 2012, Dream Defenders (DD) seeks to promote “social change” by “training and organizing youth and students in nonviolent civil disobedience, civic engagement, and direct action.” The long-term goal is to cultivate “a new generation” of young radical activists.

DD views the United States as a racist nation where deep poverty and a “vicious cycle of disenfranchisement, discrimination and depression” plagues multitudes of people—predominantly nonwhite minorities—“who have fallen through the cracks of our social and economic order.” These unfortunates, says DD, are likewise tormented by such things as a “society that criminalizes them,” “the cancer of an unchecked correctional system,” and “voter suppression” tactics (e.g., allegedly racist Voter ID laws).

Of particular concern to DD is America’s allegedly racist criminal-justice system. Citing the purported ubiquity of “police brutality, racial profiling, and mass incarceration” directed against nonwhites, DD asserts that many minorities who pass through the system subsequently “face the prospects of being labeled ‘second-class’ for the rest of their life: being denied the right to vote, the ability to get a job with a living wage, becoming endlessly trapped in the cycle of poverty and incarceration.”

DD’s major projects currently consist of the following:

* The World Is Ours: Political Action and Civic Engagement: This program “mobilizes and organizes” activists and potential voters at the local, state, and federal levels on legislative priorities which DD outlines at its annual conventions, known as Dream Defenders Congresses.

* Enemy of the State: Dismantling the Prison-Industrial Complex: Fighting “draconian drug policies, immigrant detention, and the school-to-prison pipeline,” this project seeks to “eliminat[e] profit from incarceration” by “thwarting private prisons” through “regulations that would bar them from entering into contracts with the state.”

* Divest and Conquer: Prison Divestment: DD activists, most of whom are students and recent graduates from several universities throughout the state of Florida, pressure the administrators on their respective campuses to abide by “ethical investment agreements ensuring that none of the university’s public funds are utilized in investing or contracting with private prisons/immigrant detention facilities or their major financiers.”

* Defending The Dream: Students and Workers United for Economic Justice: DD activists push their school administrators to sign “worker’s rights agreement[s]” recognizing employees’ “right to unionize” and to earn a “living wage.” Impugning capitalism as an economic system that naturally breeds injustice, DD laments “the greed of a corporate class” whose “record profit[s]” stand in sharp contrast to a public school system that is “underfunded” and thus cannot secure “the right of all to a quality education.”

DD was outraged by a February 26, 2012 incident in Sanford, Florida, in which a “white Hispanic” neighborhood-watch captain named George Zimmerman shot and killed a 17-year-old African American named Trayvon Martin. DD helped lead a series of protests agitating for Zimmerman’s arrest and demanding that Sanford’s police chief be fired for initially choosing not to bring criminal charges against Zimmerman.

DD also worked closely with the Community Relations Service (CRS), a small office within Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department, which sent taxpayer-funded political agitators to Sanford to help organize protest demonstrations (featuring Al Sharpton, among others) and convey the impression that Zimmerman had acted out of racial motives. At one point, CRS facilitated a meeting between DD representatives and Sanford city officials that resulted in a Justice Department review of the Sanford police department. And just before Zimmerman was arrested in April 2012, the Justice Department reportedly phoned DD leaders to inform them that Zimmerman would be taken into custody within 48 hours.

DD is backed by, and commonly collaborates with, such groups as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). In January 2013, for instance, DD, the ACLU, and the SPLC together held a community town hall meeting in Tallahassee “to discuss the issue of keeping our children in the school system and out of the juvenile justice system.”

In 2014, DD popularized the racially charged slogan “Hands Up–Don’t Shoot!,” which grew out of that year’s death of Michael Brown, a young black man in Ferguson, Missouri who was killed by a white police officer after he had tried to take the officer’s handgun during a confrontation. In the immediate aftermath of that incident, numerous racial agitators circulated the false narrative that Brown had been shot after raising his hands in submission and pleading, “Don’t shoot.” The slogan quickly became synonymous with allegations of police racism and brutality, and the Black Lives Matter movement joined DD in making the phrase a centerpiece of its activism.

In January 2015, five DD members (Phillip Agnew, Ciara Taylor, Steven Pargett, Sherika Shaw, Ahmad Abuznaid) joined a number of likeminded anti-police-brutality protesters in taking a 10-day trip to the Palestinian Territories in the West Bank. Their objective was to publicly draw a parallel between what they defined as Israeli oppression of the Palestinians in the Middle East, and police violence against blacks in the United States. The others in the delegation were Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors; Tef Poe and Tara Thompson from Ferguson/Hands Up United; journalist and professor Marc Lamont Hill; Cherrell Brown and Carmen Perez of the Justice League NYC; Charlene Carruthers from the Black Youth Project; poet and artist Aja Monet; and USC doctoral student Maytha Alhassen.

DD’s co-founder/legal-and-policy director, Ahmad Abuznaid, who co-organized the delegation to the West Bank, explained the rationale behind the trip: “The goals were primarily to allow for the group members to experience and see first hand the occupation, ethnic cleansing and brutality Israel has levied against Palestinians, but also to build real relationships with those on the ground leading the fight for liberation…. In the spirit of Malcolm XAngela DavisStokely Carmichael and many others, we thought the connections between the African American leadership of the movement in the U.S. and those on the ground in Palestine needed to be reestablished and fortified…. As a Palestinian who has learned a great deal about struggle, movement, militancy and liberation from African Americans in the U.S., I dreamt of the day where I could bring that power back to my people in Palestine. This trip is a part of that process.”

supporter of the Hamas-inspired Boycott, Divestment, & Sanctions (BDS) movement, Abuznaid is the son of Nabil Abuznaid, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s ambassador to the Netherlands. Moreover, the younger Abuznaid has posted Instagram pictures of himself embracing the infamous Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) terrorist Rasmea Odeh. Abuznaid was also the keynote speaker at an April 2015 fundraiser on Odeh’s behalf.

DD has expressed support for the PFLP in a number of online forums including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The organization once employed the convicted terrorist and PFLP member Mahmoud Jeddah — who in 1968 used hand grenades to wound nine civilians on a Jerusalem street and subsequently spent 17 years in an Israeli prison — as a tour guide.

In May 2016, DD led its second delegation to Israel and the Palestinian territories; one of the participants was Florida State Senator Dwight Bullard.

Describing Israel as “a continued settler colonial project” that was “born out of a political ideology called Zionism,” DD accuses the Jewish state of carrying out “genocide” against the Palestinians.

In 2020, DD endorsed the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. The organization’s political arm, Dream Defenders PAC, held twice-weekly phone banking events to support him.

Among the more noteworthy members of DD’s advisory board are Angela Davis and Linda Sarsour. Other DD leaders who have deep personal ties to a variety of left-wing groups and causes include:

  • DD co-founder and current executive director Phillip B. Agnew, who is a paid SEIU organizer;
  • DD political director Ciara Taylor, who serves as an ACLU campaign coordinator and was formerly a community outreach liaison for the Southern Poverty Law Center;
  • DD organizer and self-identified socialist Gabriel Pendas, who is also employed as a “lead organizer” by the SEIU, and who once served as president of the United States Student Association; and
  • DD director Nelini Stamp, who was previously an organizer for the Working Families Party and Occupy Wall Street. Stamp candidly declares that “we are actually trying to change the capitalist system we have today because it’s not working for any of us.” In a November 2012 piece which she wrote for Prospect.org, Stamp lauded the organizing efforts of the Midwest Academy, a pro-socialist training organization that teaches radical activists the tactics of direct action, targeting, confrontation, and intimidation.

Additional DD advisory board members have been affiliated with organizations like the ACLU, the PICO National Network, the Communication Workers of America, the SEIU, and Justice League NYC.

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