On the first day of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) annual conference in Chicago, nearly 100 activists staged a “die-in” at the meeting's doors to protest the powerful right-wing policy group’s promotion of controversial Stand Your Ground gun laws.
“Stand Your Ground? I call them the ‘Shoot First Laws,’” said Carl Gibson, 26, co-founder of U.S. Uncut and participant in Wednesday’s action. “It’s not really standing your ground, it’s just a shoot first, ask questions later law and it enabled George Zimmerman to get away with murdering a child.”
ALEC is hosting its 40th national conference from August 7 to August 9 at the Palmer House Hilton in downtown Chicago and, upset with the organization’s conservative agenda and impact on legislation, protesters kicked off a series of rallies and protests to be held throughout the week.
On Wednesday, as members of ALEC filtered into the hotel and prepared for the first day of the conference, roughly 80 protesters from a plethora of local grassroots organizations, such as Stand Up! Chicago and Action Now, “died” outside of the hotel’s lobby.
“ALEC is here today to push Stand Your Ground laws all across our nation. Do we want that,” asked Shani Smith, 38, a project organizer with Stand Up! Chicago, who participated in Wednesday's demonstration. “We are here today to stand up to ALEC and let them know that we will no longer allow them to terrorize working families.”
With an unpublished membership of more than 2,000 state lawmakers and no shortage of major corporations, which has been rumored to include AOL Inc., BP, and Koch Industries, ALEC provides a forum through which elected officials and business executives can compose “model legislation.”
According to protesters, the organization favors corporations at the expense of taxpayer protections in these “model” bills and resolutions, several of which focus on privatization, union-busting measures such as the Right To Work, and limiting the powers of federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“I think it’s disgusting that Chicago is letting ALEC hold their conference right in the middle of the Loop,” said Gibson. “This is the Windy City. This is a really diverse place to be, and just the fact that ALEC is here doing what they’re doing is just an ugly stain on this beautiful city.”
Republican Gov. Jeb Bush enacted Florida’s Stand Your Ground law in 2005, giving individuals the right to not retreat and use deadly force during dangerous situations.
After the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American teen who was shot and killed by a half-white, half-Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, the shooter did not face charges for six weeks after the incident, claiming self-defense. He was treated for head wounds the evening of the altercation.
Although his defense team focused on the self-defense angle in their arguments, Zimmerman claimed “justifiable use of deadly force” and thus the controversial law and its protections were included in the jury instructions.
"If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony,” the jury instructions read.
Zimmerman was ultimately acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in July. But because the self-appointed watchman was instructed by police not to approach Martin, who was carrying only Skittles and iced tea at the time, critics of the incident claim Zimmerman racially profiled Martin.
“There are a lot of nuances in the case, but the fact remains that a grown man with a gun, stalked an unarmed teen while he was walking back to his house,” said Gibson. “That’s the world that ALEC wants to create ... I think it’s really offensive that we still subjugate people to societal racism, like Stand Your Ground laws.”
Here's more from Wednesday's protest:
ALEC’s Civil Justice Task Force adopted the Castle Doctrine Act, or Stand Your Ground, as “model legislation” in 2005, shortly after Florida’s former governor was the first legislator to sign it into law.
As of July, 24 states have enacted a version of Stand Your Ground laws, which grant an individual the right to use reasonable force without the duty to retreat, according to the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Illinois has enacted a version of the Castle Doctrine Act that maintains a person does not have the duty to retreat from a dangerous situation within the confines of their home.
“This law disproportionately affects working-class communities of color by essentially allowing people to act out of fear,” said Smith, who added that Stand Your Ground is inherently racist. “Essentially, if someone has a different skin color and they look at you the wrong way, you can act out of fear and, in the end, someone could get shot.”
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, announced last month, shortly after Zimmerman’s not-guilty verdict was declared, that he would hold a hearing on Stand Your Ground laws when the Senate returns from the August recess.
The hearing, according to a statement from Durbin’s office, will focus on “the way in which the laws have changed the legal definition of self-defense; the extent to which the laws have encouraged unnecessary shooting confrontations; and the civil rights implications when racial profiling and 'stand your ground' laws mix, along with other issues.”
In anticipation of the hearing, Durbin has also sent letters to ALEC’s corporate supporters, questioning their position on the controversial policy.
Meanwhile, Tainika Somerville said Florida’s Stand Your Ground law enabled Zimmerman to use deadly force in an altercation that may not have otherwise resulted in a fatality.
“Trayvon could have been any one of my sons,” said the 32 year-old mother of seven boys, ages six to 17. “Is it a crime to walk down the street with a hoodie on being black? I believe it is in Florida. How can you stand your ground when you’re in a car following someone?”
Somerville, a member of Action Now and participant in Wednesday’s protest, said young African Americans are being “bamboozled” by organizations like ALEC that promote policies that disproportionately affect the black community.
“We want ALEC out of our city,” she said. “They do us no justice, they’re not for our community, they’re not for our color, and we’re begging them to get out.”
Most of ALEC’s policies, including privatization and anti-union proposals “go against everything our working-class communities stand for,” said Smith.
“ALEC exists to allow corporations to influence legislation, and they do that through money,” she said. “We think that’s wrong.”
A representative from ALEC could not be reached for comment by deadline.