The hearing in room 417 started a lot like any other.
The chairman took roll call. A stream of Florida elected officials spent a half hour paying almost impossibly earnest homage to the democratic process and the importance of civil debate. Then, a host of student activists, gun rights and gun control advocates took their turns behind the hearing room’s miniature microphone.
Almost five hours later, the Florida House Criminal Justice Subcommittee took its vote, defeating a bill that would have altered the states’ now globally infamous “Stand your ground” law by a wide margin. And it wasn’t even a surprise.
Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican and man whom Slate describes as a conservative ideologue with virtually no filter, declared publicly this summer that he “would not change one damn comma,” of Florida’s “Stand your ground” law.
But a collection of civil rights and gun control activists around the country say the fight to quash “Stand your ground” and what they see as the laws’ deadly proceeds is alive and strong. The crowds of sign-carrying, hoodie-wearing protesters may have disappeared. “#Trayvon” and “#NoJusticeNoSleep,” may no longer rank among the top 10 trending topics on Twitter. Still, a cadre of activists willing to fight policies that they believe unfairly and unreasonably imperil people of color is building, they say.
“What happened was a bunch of young people, driven by a sense of injustice and a sense that this law must be changed, forced what I think is the start of a long conversation,” said Ahmad Abuznaid, legal and policy director of the Dream Defenders, a Florida-based civil rights organization led by young adults who staged a 30-day occupation of the Florida Capitol building this summer to force the hearing. “That conversation isn’t going to stop today.”
There’s at least some objective evidence that Abuznaid is right.
Last month, the parents of Trayvon Martin—one of two unarmed black Florida teens shot and killed by men who made "Stand your ground" claims—testified before Congress. Last Monday, a coalition of concerned citizens filed a federal suit challenging the constitutionality of Georgia’s “Stand your ground” law. And the National Rifle Association, which did not respond to a request for comment from The Root this week, took the Florida legislative subcommittee hearing seriously enough to issue an action alert to its members.
“Florida URGENT! Bill to REPEAL Castle Doctrine/Stand Your Ground in Committee,” it read.
When the organization issued a notice that the measure had failed and would not be sent to the full Florida legislature, it included the email addresses of committee members and clearly identified the two who voted in favor of changing the law.
Despite the legislative setback, “I think what we know is that the passion and the energy and the commitment are there,” said Abuznaid. “I think now we just have to do the work to marry that with training and organization and resources. We are in this for the long haul.”
That is exactly what seasoned activists like Ladd Everitt, a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, and Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorofChange, want to hear.
“You have to have a sense of history,” said Everitt. “Truly worthwhile causes in this country are never easily won. They often involve grueling battles. Progress is hard business in this county, and it is not for the faint of heart. It is not for people who expect immediate gratification.”
The politics around guns and particularly NRA-favored policies such as "Stand your ground" laws are especially complex, said Robinson.
Robinson recalled when he was a guest of former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm’’s Current TV show on a day that Granholm, a Democrat, expressed regret and deep concern about the safety issues raised by "Stand your ground" laws. But when the Michigan legislature passed the law, she signed it anyway, Robinson said.
“Michigan had a moderate to liberal governor who was put in a position where she felt that she had to sign this law,” said Robinson. “That’s how much control and influence the organizations behind these laws had, and, in the case of the NRA, continue to have.
Combating the power of cash-rich lobbies is hard, long and difficult work. But toppling a political Goliath is also possible, Robinson said.
It was ColorOfChange that exposed the role of the NRA and the American Legislative Exchange Council, a lobbying coalition of corporations and conservative legislators better known as ALEC, in pushing “Stand your ground” laws onto the books in nearly 30 states. Some of ALEC’s current and former members sell guns in their stores and benefited from passage of the laws. But, after ColorOfChange began its exposure campaign, several corporations left the organization.
"Stand your ground" laws will have to be fought state by state, Everitt said.
On Monday, a collection of plaintiffs, including the Chicago-based Rainbow Push Coalition, filed a federal suit in Atlanta challenging the constitutionality of Georgia’s “Stand your ground” law. Robert Patillo, the group’s lead attorney, said the suit represents the only pending federal legal challenge in the nation.
The suit describes the death of a black and unarmed Georgia man, Chris Johnson, shot to death in a bar fight with a white man in Newnan, Ga. The man who shot Johnson was acquitted due to Georgia’s "Stand your ground" law, according to the suit.
And, the suit alleges that other African Americans face a particular risk of being harmed by people who claim to have used deadly force while in fear for their lives because blacks are often unfairly and inaccurately evaluated through the lens of stereotypes about race, criminality and violence.
Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens declined to comment on the suit because litigation is now pending. The attorney general will defend the law in federal court, a spokesman confirmed.
There is also other evidence that the movement against “Stand your ground” is not stagnant, said Robinson.
“We have seen some real push-back,” said Robinson.
In Ohio, earlier this year, an attempt to pass a “Stand your ground” law failed. And both Robinson and Everitt lavished praise on the work of the Dream Defenders in Florida.
“I have to say, I think I have seen some truly fiery activism in Florida,” said Robinson. “What the Dream Defenders have been doing, what they did this week just forcing a public airing of ideas is amazing. We are talking about a multiracial coalition of young millennials who have stepped up and made something happen. That’s something different and amazing and real.”
Janell Ross is a reporter in New York who covers political and economic issues. She is working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due to be published by Beacon Press next year. Follow her on Twitter.