MIAMI – The civil rights groups that turned outrage over Trayvon Martin’s death into action say their work is far from over now that his killer has been charged with second-degree murder. Next, they hope to harness the activism to challenge Florida’s “stand your ground” law and similar statutes in 24 other states.
But they also worry about maintaining their momentum during what could be a long judicial process and translating it into political action that could help sway lawmakers. The leaders plan to use churches, social media and other means to rally the movement that has already prompted protesters to take to the streets in several major cities.
“Arresting Zimmerman is the beginning of the process. This is a first down, not a touchdown,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson told The Associated Press this week from Houston, where he was talking to black church leaders about the Martin case, Florida’s gun law and racial profiling.
Martin’s death is also being used as a call to action by politicians such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and more traditional gun control groups including the Brady Campaign.
When prosecutors in Florida announced the second-degree murder charge against 28-year-old George Zimmerman on Wednesday, the Rev. Al Sharpton had just opened his National Action Network’s annual conference in Washington. Sharpton said attendees immediately began discussing ways to keep attention on Martin’s case and pressure governors and legislators to reconsider the self-defense laws.
“How did people hear about it in the first place? The kids heard about it on the radio. They heard about it on social media. That’s what we need to continue,” Sharpton said. “But school is going to be out soon, so you’ve got to have infrastructure that goes beyond the students, with black and minority media, with the churches.”
His organization is calling for a national “stand your ground” rally on Sunday and plans to announce a rally outside the Florida Legislature in the coming days. Martin’s parents are expected to speak at his conference Saturday. A pastor in Detroit is also planning a rally on Monday to support a teacher fired when she encouraged her students to raise money for Martin’s family.
Elsewhere, pastors such as the Rev. Raphael Warnock, of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, are writing the case into their Sunday services.
And with 200,000 “likes,” the Facebook page called “Justice for Trayvon Martin” is also keeping people informed. It continues to post about art, poetry and events organized in commemoration of the teen.
It’s a continuation of an effort that began not long after Zimmerman shot and killed Martin on Feb. 26 in Sanford, Fla. When no charges had been filed by early the next month, the Martin family’s attorney, Benjamin Crump, reached out to civil rights leaders around the country.
Martin’s parents and their supporters argued that race played a role in authorities’ initial reluctance to bring charges: Martin was black, while Zimmerman’s father is white and his mother is from Peru.
Rallies as far away as New York, Chicago and D.C. drew hundreds each, while more than a thousand protesters gathered in Miami and thousands more in Stanford. Protesters that included sports and film stars donned hooded sweatshirts like the one Martin was wearing when he was shot. The shooting was even discussed at presidential news conferences, and it became international news.
After an extraordinary 45-day campaign, the special prosecutor who took over the case charged Zimmerman. The neighborhood watch volunteer maintains that he shot the teen in self-defense after Martin attacked him. His attorney plans to cite Florida’s “stand-your-ground law,” which gives people wide latitude to use deadly force rather than retreat during a fight. The law is also part of the reason why authorities were reluctant to charge Zimmerman in the first place.
A document filed by the special prosecutor alleges that Zimmerman followed and confronted the unarmed teen, even after a police dispatcher told him to back off. He is being held without bond.
Martin’s parents say that they plan to keep up their efforts even if Zimmerman is convicted.
“We would just like for the world to know that we will continue to fight for other Trayvons out there,” his father Tracy Martin recently told the AP. “This just doesn’t stop with our child.”
The call to overturn the so-called “stand your ground” laws is gaining support from leaders beyond the civil rights community. Citing Martin’s death, Bloomberg launched a national campaign on Wednesday called “Second Chance at Shoot First” that seeks to repeal or reform the self-defense laws.
Even the gun-control group the Brady Campaign, formed in the 1980s following the attempted assassination of then President Ronald Reagan, is enjoying renewed attention. President Dan Gross plans to use the Martin case to fight proposed federal legislation that would force states with strict gun laws to recognize concealed weapons permits granted in states that have fewer requirements.
“We’ve been saying all along that the `stand your ground’ laws – or the `shoot first and ask questions later’ laws, as we call them – are only part of the issue,” Gross said.
In Florida, a state senator recently convened a committee to review whether changes are needed to the state’s self-defense laws. Gov. Rick Scott plans to convene a separate committee with a similar aim.
Still, advocates face a tough battle against an entrenched and well-funded gun-rights lobby.
The National Rifle Association, which opposes most gun control bills, spent more than $14 million on campaigns at the federal level during the last election cycle. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was the headline speaker at its national convention Friday in Missouri.
The NRA didn’t immediately respond to a call on Friday seeking comment about the self-defense laws.
Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said the presidential election gives the activists leverage but cautioned that the pitch to change self-defense laws will be tough in states where gun rights are sacred.
“Policy changes are never quick,” she said. “The bottom line is rapid policy changes have a much better chance when you have a very high profile, violatile issue like this one that reaches so many people.”
Jackson doesn’t expect any major changes to come quickly or easily, either.
“We must do some heavy lifting,” he said. “This cannot be a fad where you wear the hoodie, the apparel, and then it goes away.”
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Kyle Hightower in Stanford, Fla.; Mike Hightower in Detroit; and Sonya Rosss in Washington.