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After Zimmerman Verdict, Activists Face A New, Tougher Fight

Protesters hold hands in the rotunda outside Florida Gov. Rick Scott's office after it closed for the evening last Friday.
Phil Sears
Protesters hold hands in the rotunda outside Florida Gov. Rick Scott's office after it closed for the evening last Friday.

Phillip Agnew was blindsided by the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. The decision came down late on a Saturday night. Agnew was expecting the neighborhood watchman who killed Trayvon Martin to be found guilty.

Agnew, 28, leads a group of young activists called the Dream Defenders, which formed in Florida last year in the weeks following Trayvon's shooting death. It was one of the many groups that sprouted up in cities across the country in response to the shooting.

These new organizations relied on social media to amplify their calls for charges to be brought against Zimmerman, who initially was not held for any crime. Thousands of people showed up at marches, while many more signed online petitions or changed their Facebook profile pictures to shots of themselves sporting hoodies like the one Trayvon was wearing when he was killed. It was the latest demonstration of a kind of hashtag activism — think #STOPKONY — in which people used social media to lower the barrier of entry for civic engagement. That was especially true for people who hadn't previously thought of themselves as activist types.

Because so much of the activism was Internet-based, it was both loud and diffuse. But with the trial over, all the protest energy inspired by the case suddenly lacked a discrete focus or goal. Some groups are trying to redirect the energy of disappointed activists toward changing laws like the ones they say contributed to Trayvon's shooting. And that means taking on the stand your ground law in Florida and around the country.

It's hard to imagine a tougher target.

Agnew decided to stage a sit-in at the Florida Capitol building. The goal: to press Gov. Rick Scott to call a special session to consider what the Dream Defenders call Trayvon's Law. One of its major pillars is repealing Florida's stand your ground law.

After the killing, Daniel Maree, a New York advertising strategist, started a group called A Million Hoodies. He used Twitter and social media to organize a rally of thousands of people in Manhattan in the spring of last year. He said that activism had been "updated for a social media generation that is more aggressive, more outspoken."

Maree said he's spent thousands of dollars of his own money to pay for printing costs, travel and putting together marches for A Million Hoodies. He's put together an e-mail list of about 50,000 people from around the country. Maree feels there's an opportunity to organize groups that might not necessarily see their concerns about gun violence as related. "No one wants a dead child, no one wants their family member or loved ones to be killed, whether it's Sandy Hook or Trayvon Martin," he said.

But can these newly created groups channel the momentum into a lasting movement? I asked Ricky Jones, a political scientist at the University of Louisville. "Most civil rights organizations with any degree of staying power and efficacy were not formed from point instant events, but from a continuum of marginalization," Jones said. He said there were exceptions. "The issue then becomes how many of the groups are still viable and have any real political impact in 21st century America?"

A Heavy Lift

Even though Zimmerman's defense team never invoked it during the trial, stand your ground was a major component in the case and the conversation around it. When Judge Debra Nelson, who presided over the case, gave her final instructions to the jury members, she told them they could consider it.

"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."

One of the jurors, who spoke anonymously to CNN after the verdict, said that she took the statute into account when making her decision.

Under Florida's version of stand your ground, people who feel that they may be in imminent danger can use deadly force to protect themselves; they don't need to retreat if they feel their lives are in danger.

Stand your ground laws look to be an especially difficult challenge, despite the new focus by both activists and some national lawmakers. Before the Martin shooting, the laws had been on a steady march. They'd gone into effect in more than 20 states over the last decade, according the National Council of State Legislatures. (Florida's version was approved in 2005.) And there's little political support for repeal. According to a Rasmussen poll from Monday, the plurality of Americans (45 percent) favored having a stand your ground law on the books in their states, while about a third wanted such laws repealed. (About 22 percent of respondents were undecided.) In Florida, support was even higher: Nearly two-thirds of voters said last week that they supported the state's version of stand your ground.

Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor who's written extensively about the history of the country's gun laws, told me that the gun rights lobby, which has been a major proponent of the laws, is exceptionally well-organized and unified. "One of the main reasons the gun community is politically strong is that it has far better social networks than the gun control community," Winkler said. "Gun enthusiasts are united by their hobby: They read the same magazine, visit the same website, follow the same people on Twitter. Unlike gun control supporters, who are diffuse, the strong pro-gun people are part of a real community. They are easier to prompt into action, like making calls to elected officials or attending a rally."

The biggest rallies and movement around the repeal of stand your ground have taken place where no political pressure is needed — namely in states that don't have stand your ground laws.

"Non-gun owners are questioning stand your ground laws ... [b]ut the gun lobby is too strong to allow such laws to be repealed," Winkler earlier told the Christian Science Monitor. "For better or worse, stand your ground laws are here to stay."

Rallying The Disparate Troops

Melanie Andrade, a senior at Florida A&M University and one of the Dream Defenders, acknowledged the long odds for any repeal of stand your ground in Florida. The political landscape has prompted the group to shift its focus to other areas of Trayvon's Law. "The funneling of young people into the [criminal justice] system and racial profiling are higher up in the priorities than stand your ground," she said.

Gov. Scott said that he would not convene a special legislative session to consider the protesters' concerns. "I'm not going to call a special session," Scott told them as he met them. "I don't believe right now that stand your ground should be changed, but I can tell you I appreciate you."

Last year, Scott convened a panel to investigate the state's law; the panel eventually recommended only small changes to the statute.

Not that Andrade, Agnew or the rest of the Dream Defenders are going to stop pushing. They feel they moved the conversation in the Statehouse, even if only a few inches. "The governor initially said he wouldn't meet with us, but he had to do that after three days," Agnew said.

For now, they are subsisting on lots of pizza anonymously donated by supporters and receiving help from a few sympathetic state lawmakers. And the Dream Defenders are camping out for the second week. Agnew spends his day organizing from outside the governor's office, fielding phone calls from reporters and planning the protesters' next move. He said they were set to announce that more than 20 Florida lawmakers will back the Defenders' call for a special session to consider their Trayvon's Law proposal.

"We're hunkered down not just out of sheer determination but because we have a plan," he said. "[Fighting] this stuff won't be quick because [these laws] didn't happen quickly."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.
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