Acquittal in Shooting Death of Trayvon Martin Sparks Protest Against ALEC, Author of Stand Your Ground Laws

Photo by John Zangas
Del. Patrick Hope (left), Joslyn Williams (speaking), and Josh Horwitz (right) (Photo by John Zangas)

by Cool Revolution

When the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) held an open house at its new headquarters in Crystal City, Virginia on Thursday, several uninvited guests were on hand to welcome them to their new location.

Security guards barred protestors from entering the building housing new ALEC offices when they attempted to enter to voice their objection to a law formulated by the corporate member organization, one they say was ultimately responsible for the not guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman.

Activist Kelly Canavan was escorted out of the building by security when she took the elevator to the sixth floor lobby. “I’m here to protest ALEC’s authoring of Stand Your Ground legislation,” she said, “that made it possible for George Zimmerman to be acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin.”

Canavan was one of several activists, representatives from local churches, unions and organizations against gun violence who crashed ALEC’s open house because they were outraged by the outcome of the highly publicized trial of George Zimmerman.

A Florida law known as Stand Your Ground could have been a major factor in Zimmerman’s acquittal. It gives criminal and civil immunity to a person who has used deadly force because they claimed a reasonable fear of harm. Zimmerman was charged with second degree murder and manslaughter in the shooting African-American teenager Trayvon Martin.

Joslyn Williams, President of the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO, blamed the Stand Your Ground law and its origination on ALEC. “For those of us who are really appalled by what happened to that 17-year-old youngster, we have a responsibility to stand up and change that law,” he said. “We begin by not only opposing the law but by opposing the prime sponsors of that law, ALEC.”

Jason McGaughey and Kelly Canavan tried to attend ALEC's open house (Photo by John Zangas)
Jason McGaughey and Kelly Canavan tried to attend ALEC’s open house (Photo by John Zangas)

ALEC is an organization comprised of state legislators–almost all of them Republicans–and corporate members from the telecommunications, energy, retail and other industries which craft “model” legislation. Lawmakers then take the legislative language back to their states and propose it as policy. States often adopt it as law word for word.

Walmart, the nation’s largest rifle and ammunition retailer, was the corporate co-chair of the ALEC task force behind the Stand Your Ground law in Florida.

Many people standing on Crystal Drive on Thursday said they were out to “expose” ALEC and its practices.

“I’m here to expose all the different pieces of legislation, the anti-environmental, anti-worker, anti-voter policies that ALEC promotes,” said Virginia delegate Patrick Hope (47th district). “I believe it’s detrimental to Virginia’s working and middle class families, and I will expose it.”

Delegate Hope noted that Virginia doesn’t have Stand Your Ground laws–at least not yet. Two years ago, he said, there was “a big push” for similar legislation, and he expected that “it’s going to come back.”

While Stand Your Ground was not part of Zimmerman’s defense–he relied on Florida’s lenient self-defense statutes–it still may have played a significant role in the case from the beginning as well as during the trial itself.

Zimmerman wasn’t arrested and charged for almost six weeks after the shooting, and police failed to investigate aggressively, because authorities felt his initial explanation for the events were “reasonable” according to Stand Your Ground guidelines. Moreover, during the trial, the instructions to the jury invoked its protections, recognizing a “right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force” while eliminating the “duty to retreat.”

Jury instructions in homicide case were changed when Stand Your Ground legislation was passed in 2005. The NRA’s head lobbyist reportedly reviewed the jury instructions before they were finally approved and called them “pretty faithful” to the law the gun lobby helped conceive.

ALEC helped get Stand Your Ground on the books of more than two dozen states, including Florida. But pressure from grassroots protests following the Trayvon Martin shooting forced it to scrap its Public Safety and Elections Task Force task in April 2012, and several corporate members left, including Kraft, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Pepsi. Yet ALEC so far has refused to work for the law’s repeal.

BroughtToYoubyALECThe connection of Stand Your Ground laws with the George Zimmerman acquittal may bring more scrutiny to the legislation ALEC writes and promotes in general.

“It’s not just the Stand Your Ground law,” said Joslyn Williams. “ALEC stands for everything that is really un-American: low wages, no benefits, and all these legislations designed to drive people down into poverty.”

Reverend Al Sharpton and his National Action Network are planning rallies in front of as many as a hundred major city courthouses around the country on Saturday, July 20, to protest Stand Your Ground Laws.

John Zangas contributed to this article.