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With Kids' Bulletproof Vest Ads, Group Tries To Start Pre-election Conversation On Race

"Bulletproof Vest" billboard
Jessica Palombo

A billboard in Tallahassee is advertising bulletproof vests for children. The group behind the provocative campaign wants to make Florida voters think about policies like the Stand Your Ground law before they cast ballots in the midterm election.

Picture this: You’re driving westward down one of Tallahassee’s main roads. Apalachee Parkway eventually runs right into state Capitol building, but you’re waiting at a light at the Capital Circle intersection, one of the busiest in town. Then you see it: A billboard high above a KFC restaurant.

It appears to just be an ad for vests, like you’d see for a back-to-school sale. It says ”On sale now” next to a smiling child with his arms outstretched, looking directly at the viewer. It says, “Bulletproof vest for boys,” and there’s a price right under it: $149.99.

In the shadows under the billboard, several people wait at a bus stop on Thursday evening. Sean Frederick is on his way home from working a restaurant shift. He’s looking at the image of the small child in the bulletproof vest for the first time.

“What do they say, ‘A picture’s worth a thousand words’? That’s heartbreaking to me right now,” he says.

Like the kid in the ad, Frederick is black. He says he thinks the billboard’s message is to put down the guns. Eventually, the conversation turns to racism.

“Yeah, of course!” he says when asked if he’s experienced racism recently.

Most recently, he says when he got on the bus in his all-black work uniform, he noticed people looking at him a certain way.

“Based on the uniform of an individual, you perceive a lot, but your perceptions aren’t always the truth,” he says.

The billboard’s creators say this conversation about perception, about recognizing the humanity in all people, is exactly what they hoped to start.

Phillip Agnew directs a group called The Dream Defenders. He says, “This isn’t about a gun. This is about who uses the gun and who they see when they’re walking down the street.”

Dream Defenders sprang up after the shooting death of unarmed black Florida teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012. Now the group is behind the Tallahassee billboard and a website that make up the "Vest or Vote" campaign. A video on the site shows a teary-eyed mother getting her teenage son ready for school. She asks him to wear a bulletproof vest.

“I need to know when I’m at work that you’re going to be safe,” she pleads. “Do it for me.”

Agnew says the ads reflect Florida mothers’ fears because of racial profiling, police brutality and vigilantism encouraged, he believes, by the state’s controversial Stand Your Ground self-defense law.

Advertiser Gerard Bush was one of the creative minds behind the bulletproof vest imagery.

“And I really do not believe that it is an exaggeration,” he says. “I believe that it’s right around the corner.”

Back at the Tallahassee bus stop, Ruby Williams is also noticing the ad for the first time.

“Oh, yeah, that’s really neat! For kids especially, because you know, you never know when somebody’s going to be shooting. You never know when kids are going to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she says.

Ad man Bush says that reaction—believing it’s real—shows the campaign is successful.

“I would count that as a huge win, absolutely,” he says. “Would it be a huge win two years, three years, five years down the road after having done nothing about it?”

Dream Defenders are hoping the campaign brings people out to vote for candidates who support a repeal of Stand Your Ground. They stop short of overtly endorsing a candidate, but here’s what Democrat Charlie Crist said in the most recent gubernatorial debate: “When you get to the point that you’ve got a statute on the books that allows the initiator of an instigation to end up killing another human being after they started the incident, there is something fundamentally flawed with that law.”

Asked whether he would repeal Stand Your Ground, Republican Gov. Rick Scott reflected on the Trayvon Martin case.

“I would not change the law,” Scott said. “I think that death is a tragic death, but I believe in the right to defend yourself.”

The Dream Defenders are planning a second "Vest or Vote" billboard for Broward County. The group plans to run the campaign until the midterm election.