George Zimmerman fired the shot that killed Trayvon Martin, but ALEC wrote the Stand Your Ground law at the core of his legal defense. Taken just a slight step further, ALEC also pressed for the budget cuts that have led localities to depend more and more on volunteer neighborhood watch groups rather than professional police.
That’s the line that a coalition of advocacy groups is pushing, and it’s tricky, but completely plausible.
ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that has been active since 1973, producing model legislation for the states, and helping Republican state legislators to introduce, pass, and defend a raft of policies that weaken environmental laws, unions, public education, and state capacity generally. Funded partly by state legislators, and mostly by powerful corporate interests (including, of course, the Koch brothers), ALEC has taken the conservative political agenda (“limited government” “free markets” federalism”) to the states in a very serious way. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, now facing a recall election, implemented an ALEC agenda. (See Bill Cronon’s website on Walker and ALEC.)
ALEC’s organizers understood early on that state legislators in most states lacked the expertise and capacity to develop comprehensive agendas, so they developed a core package that allied legislators could use. ALEC drafts legislation and schools its allies in how to use it. It’s not a coincidence that newly elected Republican governors across the United States worked on the same issues; rather, it’s a triumph of conservative organizing.
ALEC supports Stand Your Ground legislation (copied, it says, from Florida’s 2005 law) which protects someone using deadly force in defense of what he or she deems to be a serious threat to person or property. ALEC also supports model legislation making the purchase of guns readily accessible. It’s not clear whether Trayvon Martin’s tragic death has stalled ALEC’s progress. The Washington Post reports that the National Rifle Association is NOW actively lobbying Alaska’s state legislature to pass a similar law.
Last week, a coalition of civil rights and progressive groups, including the NAACP, Color of Change, the Urban League, Common Cause, People for the American Way, Moveon.org, SEIU, and the National Council of Churches, organized a demonstration outside the Washington office building that houses ALEC’s headquarters, asking the group to disavow the laws (reports here and here).
ALEC responds that Trayvon Martin’s death is a tragedy, but the law doesn’t give anyone the right to chase after a perceived threat, and it’s “shameful” for activists to use the Martin tragedy to attack ALEC.
Trayvon Martin’s death has opened a moment in public discussion that activists are trying to fill, seeking to give meaning to a tragedy.
This is, by the what, what savvy activists always do. Antinuclear power activists used the accidents at Three Mile Island (1979) and Fukushima (2011) to draw attention to their claims. Tea Partiers used confusion about and antipathy toward the health care law (2009) to advance a broader conservative agenda.
Finding a way to do so, however, is no easy matter, as the prospecting for demands suggests. Indicting George Zimmerman, providing perhaps a crude justice in the case, won’t really change anything about profiling, racism, or armed neighborhood watch volunteers. Attacking racism, in contrast, is big, ambitious, and extremely hard to track.
Trying to hold ALEC responsible might be the most productive middle course available.