Just before noon on a sunny D.C. day, close to 100 students, office workers and activists quietly converged outside a nondescript office building for a rally to shine light on the role that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) played in pushing legislatures to pass "Stand Your Ground" or "Shoot First" laws around the country -- laws which many blame for the Sanford police force's unwillingness to charge Trayvon Martin's acknowledged killer, George Zimmerman.
Led by a broad coalition of progressive groups -- including the NAACP, the Urban League, Color of Change, Common Cause, People for the American Way and MoveOn.org -- some wore hooded sweatshirts over or under their business attire. Many carried signs emblazoned with slogans like "Don't shoot me, I'm innocent", "Don't shoot me, I'm unarmed" and "Don't shoot me, I'm a Mom". Some of the protestors also held aloft bags of Skittles, the candy that Martin purchased just before being accosted by Zimmerman.
"This story is a family tragedy enabled by laws that protect people who kill others and then hide behind heinous 'Shoot First' legislation as pushed by ALEC and the National Rifle Association," said Garlin Gilchrist II, the National Campaign Director of MoveOn.Org and one of the speakers at today's rally. "Such laws make racial profiling a pretext for homicide and they enshrine injustice at a policy level. There are 'Shoot First' laws in more than 20 states. Trayvon Martin's case… the pain it is causing the entire country is a call to action to fight for a just society."
While there have been several notable protests since Zimmerman shot Martin on February 26, 2012, many of those movements channeled outrage over the fact that Zimmerman had yet to be arrested, focusing on getting the local police to act against the self-appointed neighborhood watchman. Today's rally sought to go further by addressing the organization that drafts laws like the one Zimmerman used to defend his actions while educating the public about the connections between politically conservative corporations and lobbying groups and the state legislators who ALEC encouraged to promulgate the laws.
"Our organizations are sending a clear message to ALEC and the corporations that sponsor it that you cannot come for black money by day and try to take away our votes and our lives by night," declared Color of Change's Executive Director Rashad Robinson, who, like each of the rally's speakers, stood upon a makeshift stage before the hooded, sign-carrying protesters.
Doug Clopp, the Deputy Director for Programs at Common Cause, said the day was about seeking justice and accountability. Common Cause is a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy group founded to help citizens hold their elected officials accountable to the public interest.
"America is waking up," he said. "There are corporations behind the elected members of ALEC who pass 'Stand Your Ground' legislation. Where is Coca-Cola and Kraft when this is happening? I believe corporate accountability is coming. One-third of state legislators are members of ALEC -- so who are they representing? The men and women who voted for them or the corporations who put profit above public interests? We need to hold both politicians and the corporations who are behind them accountable when they act in opposition to the values we hold dear in a democracy."
As activists addressed the rally, they were periodically greeted with chants of "No justice, no peace!" from the crowd, which included Howard University student Natasha Steadman, originally from Brooklyn.
"The voices of young people need to be heard," Steadman said. "I'm here in support of Trayvon Martin, but it's also bigger than that case now. It's time for my generation to stand up and speak out about the injustice that affects us as black youth."
The Florida version of the "Stand Your Ground" law, which exists in some form in 23 other states, holds that a person is justified in using deadly force if they reasonably believe that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death, bodily harm or the commission of a forcible felony without a duty to retreat. "Stand Your Ground" laws are controversial, in part, because they can be employed as an affirmative defense and used to gain immunity from criminal charges and civil suits.
ALEC, which is funded by prominent corporations, has worked closely with the National Rifle Association (NRA) to promote such legislation through its members, who are conservative lawmakers.
Immediately after the rally, a coalition of leaders including Marge Baker and Diallo Brooks from People For the American Way, Hillary Shelton of the NAACP, MoveOn's Gilchrist and Lisa Graves of PR Watch attempted to hand-deliver a letter with their demands to ALEC but were thwarted by a locked door. Brooks finally slipped the letter under the door before the group retreated.
"How typical that the doors were closed," Shelton responded. "It's sad and unfortunate because we brought information to share with ALEC. In the context of racial profiling, all they've done with their 'Stand Your Ground' laws is throw kerosene on a fire"