By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Claiming victory despite their failure to force a special legislative session on Florida's "Stand Your Ground" self-defense law, youthful protesters ended a 31-day occupation of the state Capitol's ground floor on Thursday.
They vowed to take their demands to college campuses and state lawmakers' campaign rallies in a long-term push for social change.
"I say to the young people here, you're ending a protest because you started a movement," Julian Bond, former chairman of the NAACP, said at a news conference in the Capitol rotunda.
"That movement is going to reverberate across the state of Florida and eventually to the adjoining states, until all of America knows something about the strength and the power that was demonstrated here."
Calling themselves the Dream Defenders, the group began its sit-in four days after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the fatal shooting of teen-ager Trayvon Martin in the central Florida town of Sanford.
Florida Governor Rick Scott rejected their demands for a special session, and efforts to get the Republican-run Legislature to convene one also fell short.
The gathering of mostly black, college-aged demonstrators had vowed to camp in the Capitol until Scott and the legislative leadership addressed their demands.
But less than a day after a legislative headcount showed at least 83 members opposed to a session and only 27 favoring one, Dream Defenders executive director Phillip Agnew announced his group was calling off the sit-in.
"Our work and our power have grown too big for these halls," Agnew said. "It's time for the movement to continue ... this is the last time that I'm going to sleep on these floors."
With the school year starting soon, Agnew said Dream Defenders will work on campuses to register 61,550 voters - the margin of Scott's victory in the 2010 election - and plans to send a delegation later this month to the 50th anniversary commemoration of the famous March on Washington.
He said his organization has been given a speaking slot at the rally.
"This is only the beginning of Takeover Florida. We will leave from here to every college and university around the state," said Agnew. "This is not the last you will hear the question, 'Can we dream together?' ... After 31 days and 30 nights, we are indeed leaving the Capitol for our next phase."
Agnew said the Dream Defenders accomplished some of their goals - staging the longest Capitol sit-in ever and getting House Speaker Will Weatherford to call for a committee hearing next month on the 2005 "Stand Your Ground" law.
That statute permits use of lethal force in self-defense when law-abiding citizens fear their lives are in danger.
Zimmerman was acquitted in July with a traditional self-defense argument, but jury instructions included the language of the "Stand Your Ground" law.
(Editing by David Adams and Ken Wills)