Never underestimate the power of activism. Never. Because just when you think a voice raised in protest will have no impact, many voices raised in protest can shake up an entire state’s legislative agenda. Case in point: Florida. After the outrage over George Zimmerman’s acquittal and the controversial state law that hung in the shadows of his trial, “Stand Your Ground,” Florida’s legislature was put on alert by the outcry of very active, very angry people. And someone in that state finally took notice: in an editorial published Thursday, August 2, in the The Tampa Tribune, State House Speaker, GOP Will Weatherford, announced, if somewhat equivocally, that he would ask a House Committee to do just what the protesters were demanding: convene to hold a hearing on the controversial law:
“Since 2000, violent crime has declined by more than 30 percent, benefiting Floridians of all races. Florida has seen one of the steepest drops in violent crime rates compared to other states over the same time frame.
“One of the laws passed during that time period is commonly known as ‘Stand Your Ground.’ I was not in the Florida Legislature when the bill became law with bipartisan support, but as the current speaker of the House, I have been asked to repeal it. ‘Asked’ is a generous term considering the threats of boycotts, union-sponsored protesters overtaking the governor’s office and Hollywood elites disparaging our state and threatening the livelihood of hard-working Floridians.
“So what is the responsibility of Florida’s lawmakers in the wake of the Zimmerman trial and the criticisms? First, we must listen… Second, we must look at the facts. I have asked the chair of our Criminal Justice Subcommittee to hold a hearing this fall on ‘Stand Your Ground.’ Our evaluation of its effectiveness should be guided by objective information, not by political expediency.” [Emphasis added.]
While Weatherford goes on to assert that “our citizens’ ability to protect themselves” will remain a paramount concern, the big take-away from this cannot be denied: activism pushed an idea from the streets and sit-ins right to the desk of most powerful man in Florida’s House, and by the sheer volume and relentlessness of their demands a hearing will be held. That is a victory in anyone’s “anatomy of activism” handbook!
As Weatherford made sure to point out in his editorial, Zimmerman’s defense team ultimately did not rely on SYG (convinced – turns out, rightly so – that simple ‘self defense’ would do the job), but the law was originally invoked and remained the most-stated underlying rationale for Zimmerman’s killing of teenager Trayvon Martin. And beyond social media, bloggers, journalists, radio and TV talk show hosts, and high-profile celebrities, there was a groundswell of grassroots activism in the form of country-wide protests, sit-ins, rallies, speeches, petitions and just plain old speaking up that finally hit pay-dirt. Some of the most powerful voices came from the “Dream Defenders,” an eclectic group of activists that includes students, teachers, working professionals and the occasional visiting celebrity (Harry Belafonte showed up last week), who maintained their now-almost-18-day sit-in (as of this writing) at the Florida Capitol to fight for “justice for Trayvon” and a repeal of the notorious law. From a piece by my colleague, Elisabeth Parker, Kids Occupy FL Capitol For 8 Days And Counting: Here’s How We Get ‘Justice For Trayvon’ (VIDEO):
Eight days later [dated July 25]], and they’re still there, and joined by a slowly but surely growing number of supporters. [Kathleen] McGrory [of the Tampa Bay Times] reported in another article that — even at only four days — the sit-in set a record in Florida politics. All the Dream Defenders want is for [Governor Rick] Scott to convene the legislature for a special hearing on repealing the Stand Your Ground law. But the Republican governor refuses to even talk with them. Scott and his cohorts in the GOP may live to regret this. If Scott hopes the Dream Defenders will run out of steam and dwindle away on their own, like so many grassroots movements do, he’ll likely hope in vain.
Turns out they didn’t dwindle and they didn’t need Scott; they got to Weatherford. From The Tampa Tribune:
Weatherford’s announcement, made in an opinion column published in The Tampa Tribune on Friday, is the first concrete move by the Republican majority in the Legislature toward considering changing the law, which has generated protests in the state’s Capitol and calls from some Democrats for a special session of the Legislature to modify or repeal it. [… ]
Weatherford, whose position as speaker makes him the most powerful member of the state House, said he’ll ask Criminal Justice Subcommittee Chairman Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach to hold a hearing on the law this fall.
Of course, while there is sweet victory in just getting a hearing called, there can be no delusions about a red state – and Florida, at that! – easily disassembling a law that is weighted toward gun owners and gun rights activists (also a very noisy group!). In fact, Chairman Matt Gaetz has made no bones about where he stands on the hearing:
“I don’t expect that the Legislature’s going to move one damn comma,” Gaetz said.
Gaetz, who holds his chairmanship by Weatherford’s appointment, said he’ll hold the requested hearing and is working with committee member Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Miami, on the schedule and format. Legislative committee meetings in anticipation of the 2014 session begin the week of Sept. 23.
As chairman, Gaetz has the power to allow or prevent a vote on any legislation filed with his committee. He said he allows bills he opposes to be heard and voted on and won’t attempt to bottle up revisions to Stand Your Ground.
“If the members of the committee support changes, they will be proposed, but nobody can count on my vote,” he said.
Ah, there’s an open mind!
But Gaetz’s view is one shared by others of his demographic across the country. A recent poll shows that Americans who support ‘Stand Your Ground’ do so along party, racial and gender lines and despite demands to reevaluate it, the numbers skew in its support:
A Quinnipiac University poll, however, suggests it [reexamination of the law] could be an uphill battle.
The poll found that a strong majority of white voters and men support the laws, while black voters generally oppose them and women are almost evenly divided.
Three quarters of Republicans and most Independents support Stand Your Ground laws, while more than six in 10 Democrats oppose them. In households with gun owners, voters back the laws by a margin of 67 percent to 29 percent.
This is not only NOT surprising, it correlates with a study done last year on Stand Your Ground. From Addicting Info:
A Frontline piece titled Is There Racial Bias in “Stand Your Ground” Laws? discussed a study done last year by PBS Frontline on those very questions, focused particularly on how murder convictions and the racial make-up of victims have been impacted by the SYG. What they found was, to put it bluntly, that “Stand Your Ground” makes it easier for blacks to be murdered without anyone being convicted of the crime.
Which, in large part, is why blacks, six in ten Democrats, and 50 percent of women are against the law. And why protest were organized, voices were raised, and activists got active.
And despite the bias of the law, despite the ‘uphill battle,” hope springs… because there is going to be a hearing. And as House Democratic Leader, Perry Thurston (D-Fort Lauderdale) remarked, that’s a “good first step.” (Thurston was also one to acknowledge and applaud the Dream Defenders in their State Capitol occupation.)
And, let’s face it, when any step is taken in response to peaceful, productive activism, that’s a good step for democracy… and a particularly good lesson for younger generations who need to shake off apathy to realize that, with enough voices, one can create change. Now let’s see if that activism can keep enough pressure on the issue to force movement of more than just a few commas in a law that has no business being on the books of any state.
Other ‘Stand Your Ground’ Articles from Addicting Info: