The killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin has raised old concerns about everything from racial profiling to gun violence. That's frustrating, as so many Americans had hoped that their country might have bent the arc of history a bit more toward progress.
But the shooting in Sanford, Florida, has done something else. It has focused new attention on the structural supports for legislating on behalf of special-interest, and on the way in which the American Legislative Exchange Council turns bad ideas into bad law.
That has created a new clarity with regard to the need for a pushback against ALEC and its corporate sponsors. And that clarity has renewed a civil rights coalition that will be needed if there is to be any hope for breaking the grip of one-size-fits-all lawmaking and renewing small "d" democracy and sound governance in the states.
The focus of the moment is, of course, on the "Kill at Will" laws—known variously as "Castle Doctrine" and "Stand Your Ground" measures, referred to by former Florida US Attorney Kendall Coffey as "License-to-Kill" laws—that ALEC has been promoting nationally since 2005 in cooperation with the National Rifle Association, the gun manufacturing industry and gun retailers. These laws, which afford immunity to gunmen who shoot unarmed individuals they presume to be threatening, go far beyond the traditional self-defense protections that have been afforded Americans from the founding of the republic. They tie the hands of responsible politice officers and prosecutors. And they create openings for abuses like those that have been highlighted in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin shooting.
This is appropriate. But it is not an end point for new civil rights campaigners. ALEC has been in the forefront of promoting restrictive Voter ID laws and related measures that open government and democracy groups identify as voter suppression schemes. The group, which links corporate representatives and conservative legislators to develop and promote so-called "model legislation," has as well pushed measures that undermine public-employee and private-sector unions, threaten public education and remove regulatory protections that are most vital to low-income Americans.
Ultimately, however, there must be a point of beginning.
And Thursday's rally at the Washington office from which ALEC promotes state legislation provided that.
Historic civil rights groups such as the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and newer groups such as ColorOfChange, joined with major unions such as the AFL-CIO and SEIU, religious groups such as the National Council of Churches and Faith in Public Life, public interest groups such as Common Cause and Public Campaign, and activist organizations such as People for the American Way, USAction and Moveon.org stood together to challenge the American Legislative Exchange Council. And they did so in alliance with the Center for Media and Democracy, which last year worked with The Nation to develop the ALECexposed project. That investigative initiative revealed the behind-the-scenes machinations of the corporate-sponsored legislative "bill mill."
Those who gathered outside the ALEC offce delivered a letter to the organization, demanding that it "disclose all NRA funding and publicly pledge to end its promotion of 'Kill at Will' bills."
The message at the rally was blunt. Signs read: "Don't Shoot Me—I'm A Student," "Don't Shoot Me—I'm a Grandfather," "Don't Shoot Me—I'm A Congresswoman," "Don't Shoot Me—I'm A Pastor."
And it was reinforced by National Urban League president Marc Morial, a former mayor of New Orleans, who explained Thursday that: “The spate of ‘Kill At Will’ laws that have passed around the country appear to have been written by the same hand—a ghostwriter named ALEC—and backed by the NRA. Until this relationship is fully examined, at a minimum, ALEC and its NRA backers should immediately stop their promotion of the kinds of ‘Kill At Will’ laws that led to this tragedy."
Detailing ALEC's actions to undermine voter rights, workplace safety and civil rights, Morial noted that the group had used its network of conservative state legislators to pass similar “Kill At Will’” legislation in thirty states—legislation that frequently mirrors the 2005 Florida law that has come to national attention since the Trayvon Martin shooting.
Noting that Florida's "justifiable homicide" rate has jumped 300 percent since former Florida Governor Jeb Bush signed his state's "Stand Your Ground" law, Morial said: “This should give everyone pause when an inside-the-beltway group can write and promote laws around the country that give a free pass to criminal behavior and trample on our civil rights. Today we are focused on justice for Trayvon. But until we get to the bottom of the NRA/ALEC relationship and their motivation for promoting laws that go beyond commercial interests, who knows who ALEC’s next victim will be.”
That's right. But that's not the end point for this examination of how ALEC is warping the legislative processes of states across the country. It's the point of beginning for a new coalition of rights activists and reformers with an old goal: an American with liberty and justice for all.