The Dream Defenders, a Florida-based student activist group, has launched a chilling and provocative ad campaign, called #VestorVote, that calls the public’s attention to the specter of violence and police brutality that Black and brown young people face if more communities of color don’t vote on Nov. 4 and engage in the political process.
The campaign features a short, moving black-and-white video and also a website and billboards with a common theme: a bulletproof vest for youth that parents can purchase for their children to wear when they leave the house. At the website for the Dream Defenders, the Dream Vest for Youth appears to be on sale for $149, with an ad featuring a gorgeous young boy modeling a black bulletproof vest and wearing a happy smile with his arms outstretched.
“No one wants to live in a world where bulletproof vests are the norm,” the website says in words that accompany the ad. “Vote on November 4th (and earlier, in Florida and most states), and let’s together take a stand on laws, like Stand Your Ground, that create fear and insecurity in our communities. Show your support by sharing the video using the hashtag #VestOrVote.”
In the black-and-white commercial, a mother persuades her reluctant son to wear the bulletproof vest to school with the plea: “I need to know that when I’m at work, you’re going to be safe,” she says to him, as he looks at her skeptically. “Do it for me.”
“Alright Mom, I’ll do it for you,” he finally says.
After she snaps the vest into place and kisses him on the foreword, voiceovers start playing the audio from TV reports of recent shootings of young Black men, such as Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant. These words then appear on a black screen: “Every 28 hours an African-American is killed by a police officer, security guard or vigilante. No parent in America should have to put their child in a bulletproof vest.”
Ciara Taylor, the political director for the Dream Defenders, said the ads are meant to immediately grab the public’s attention.
“Our campaign is meant to be provocative, meant to be chilling, meant to wake people up,” she said in an interview with AtlantaBlackStar.com. “Although it seems like a big exaggeration about the importance of voting, it really isn’t. It’s a warning about what can happen in the future if the Black community doesn’t pay attention to politics and the way it affects our lives. It’s not the end all or the be all, it won’t solve all the conflicts in our community, but it’s a great start. It’s an important action we can take as citizens to be politically engaged in this process.”
The Dream Defenders was started two years ago by about 40 African-American college students and recent alumni from colleges across Florida after Trayvon Martin was killed and George Zimmerman still hadn’t been arrested. The group says it is dedicated to fighting against systemic racism and the oppression of Black and brown people.
The group recently got a big boost in its national exposure when a video went viral of the Dream Defenders Executive Director Phillip Agnew brilliantly schooling a white man during a PBS special about the insidiousness of systemic racism.
Taylor said that after the Defenders’ communications director Steven J. Pargett came up with the idea for the bulletproof vest commercial, Agnew created the #VestorVote hashtag, paying homage to Malcolm X’s “ballot or bullet” speech.
“It’s definitely satire — there isn’t an actual vest we’re selling,” Taylor said, though she pointed out that she has already seen tweets from parents saying they would buy one for their children. “That’s the extent parents in our communities are willing to go to protect their children. This is intended for communities of color living in fear in their own neighborhoods. It’s a campaign about voting, but it’s also about the desire for our communities to protect our future, which is our kids — who are being targeted, physically and mentally, with stand your ground, police brutality, the school to prison pipeline. We wanted to send a shock to the public that we have to really take charge this year. We have to go to the ballot box.”