Notes from the Trayvon Martin rally at the Iowa Capitol

At least 200 people gathered on the west steps of the Iowa State Capitol Monday evening for a rally and vigil marking one month since Trayvon Martin's killing in Floriday. After the jump I've posted a few notes from the event, along with links about the impact of Martin's death on the debate over proposed "stand your ground" legislation in Iowa.

Drake Law School students organized the event to call attention to Iowa House File 2215, the so-called "stand your ground" bill. A similar statute in Florida is the main reason law enforcement did not arrest or charge George Zimmerman after he shot and killed the unarmed Martin. The Iowa House passed the bill along party lines on February 29. It is dead in the Iowa Senate for this session, despite efforts by the National Rifle Association to pressure Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Gene Fraise.

The crowd was larger than I expected, given that the organizers announced the time and place of the rally only a day in advance. Most of the attendees posed for a group photo after the speeches. State Representative Ako Abdul-Samad posted the photo on Facebook, which should give you an idea of the size. The organizers said they planned to send copies of the photo to all 150 Iowa legislators and to Trayvon Martin's family.

Lots of Democratic state legislators attended the rally, many wearing hoodies. Unfortunately, they were not introduced individually, and they weren't all standing together so I didn't get a complete count. Besides Abdul-Samad, I saw State Representatives Deborah Berry, Curt Hanson, Bruce Hunter, Chuck Isenhart, Dan Kelley, Helen Miller, Mark Smith, Sharon Steckman, Phyllis Thede, Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, and John Wittneben. Fraise was there, along with State Senators Bob Dvorsky, Jack Hatch, Pam Jochum. Iowa Democratic Party Chair Sue Dvorsky was in the crowd too, as was Senate district 22 Democratic candidate Desmund Adams.  I'll update this post with more names if other Bleeding Heartland readers can add to my list.

Third-year law student Kevin Patrick introduced the speakers and in his own remarks urged the audience not to get bogged down in anger and assigning blame, but to be informed and go beyond the superficial in how we relate to each other. He talked about the hoodie as a metaphor for superficialities that obscure who we really are as people.

Abdul-Samad gave a powerful speech and got a laugh from the crowd by demonstratively putting away the talking points he got from Democratic staff ahead of time. He mentioned his son, who was shot to death in 1996, and other black men who have been killed more recently in central Iowa. He lamented the lack of "real conversations" that might prevent violence in our society. He asked members of the audience to hold onto someone else's hand, preferably a stranger's hand, and look into that person's eyes while repeating his words, such as, "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired!" and "No justice, no peace! Know justice, know peace!" Several times Abdul-Samad stopped to tell people, "Don't look at me," look at your neighbor.

Wessel-Kroeschell was up next, joking, "I have a new rule: never speak after Ako." Although she has a different style due to her "quiet, Lutheran background," she spoke passionately about the dangers of House File 2215, and how we don't want a law in Iowa that would justify actions like killing Trayvon Martin. According to Wessel-Kroeschell, Florida's law has been invoked 93 times in cases involving 65 deaths. (She repeatedly referred to the law as "shoot first" rather than "stand your ground.") She vowed to keep fighting the bill.

Polk County prosecutor Jeff Noble was the next speaker. He emphasized the Polk County Attorney John Sarcone wanted to address the rally himself but had a prior commitment. Noble explained why his office and the county attorneys' association lobbied strongly against House File 2215, which he called the "license to kill bill." He said the legislation protects those who seek to do violence as opposed to those who seek to avoid violence. Current Iowa law already protects our right to defend ourselves. Noble added that sometimes legislators who pass a law don't know how it might work in the real world, but the Trayvon Martin tragedy gives Iowa lawmakers the benefit of seeing the implications of the bill. He also warned against judging Florida police too harshly for not arresting and charging Zimmerman, because if you give law enforcement "defective tools" (laws on the books), you will get "defective justice just like they're seeing in Florida today."

Speaking to me by telephone today, Noble said he has learned in 22 years of work as a Polk County prosecutor that nine times out of ten, both people involved in a violent altercation feel justified in their actions. He is very worried that the "stand your ground" legislation would tie the hands of police and prosecutors when faced with any number of confrontations that become deadly through "incremental escalation." (For instance, a fender bender leads to angry words or profanity, which leads to a clenched fist, which leads to someone pulling out a gun, which makes the other person feel compelled to grab a tire iron. Suddenly both people have "reasonable" grounds to feel so threatened that they must act with deadly force to protect themselves.)

As I mentioned above, House File 2215 is dead for this year. Its lead sponsor, Republican State Representative Matt Windschitl, has pledged to introduce it again next year.

"I understand it's a tragic case that happened in Florida. I wasn't there. The only two people who were there were the victim and the man who defended himself," Windschitl said. "Nobody can tell you what happened besides those people. I think Iowans have a right to defend themselves where they have a right to be present. To require an Iowan to retreat when they feel threatened, I think, that's an asinine proposal."

Windschitl also defended his bill in comments to the Des Moines Register a few days ago.

"I believe the language we have incorporated into the bill passed over to the Senate has protections already embedded into it that would protect law-abiding Iowans who choose to defend themselves but also protect Iowans at large," Windschitl said. [...]

But for opponents of the measure, the Florida case provides a clear example of the dangers inherent in a law loosening restrictions on the use of deadly force.

"What happened in Florida is exactly the type of tragedy that all these law enforcement leaders told us we would see here," said Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, and a vocal opponent of the bill. "And it's exactly the scenario that the people supporting the 'stand your ground' bill told us ... was never going to happen." [...]

Another strong critic of "stand your ground" laws, Polk County Attorney John Sarcone, said Thursday that he believes such laws restrict law enforcement's ability to make arrests and initiate the legal process that decides whether the use of force was justified.

That is evident, he said, in the Martin case, where the local police said in a statement they were "prohibited from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time."

"I think it shows what the clear danger of that law is and what it allows to happen," Sarcone said of the Florida case.

All 24 Iowa Senate Republicans have signed a discharge petition seeking to bring the bill directly to the Senate floor. (The tactic wouldn't work, even if they convinced a few Democrats to join them.) Democratic State Senator Jack Hatch brought up the petition in a speech to his colleagues yesterday afternoon:

"I want you to think real hard if you've signed it, why you signed it, and if you haven't signed it, keep your signature off that petition," Hatch told his colleagues. [...]

"The rally today is not only to celebrate and look at the life of Trayvon Martin, but to have us think real clearly whether or not that legislation not only should go forward, let's hope that the state of Florida and other states that have passed that legislation at least consider revising it or even repealing it. This is not a time for us to incite fear among our citizens. This is a time for us to consider providing leadership."

Hatch's remarks drew a sharp rebuke from Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa, who also spoke briefly about the Florida incident on the Senate floor.

"A tragedy happened, a young man is dead and another family is broken," Chelgren said. "This happened in Florida, and it's unfortunate. We have a judicial system that is going to go through this process. And so while we grieve with the families for this tragedy, it is unconscionable to turn this into a political theater here in the state of Iowa.

"The death of a young man should not be used as an excuse to attack the very liberties that we have in this country, and personally I am offended and ashamed of what Sen. Hatch said today because he should not be treating the families who are grieving at this time in such a manner."

Meanwhile, Vanessa Miller reported for the Cedar Rapids Gazette on opposition to the bill from law enforcement officials in eastern Iowa.

"A person already has the right to defend themselves or others, if needed," said Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden. "The 'stand your ground' legislation goes far past that. I refer to it as the 'license to kill' statute, because that's exactly what it does." [...]

"I think this incident in Florida is going to be, our hope is, an eye-opening true life experience for legislators about what can happen with this type of legislation on the books," Vander Sanden said. [...]

"If you give law enforcement powers to citizens who have no law enforcement training, tragedy will result," Vander Sanden said.

The proposed legislation that passed through the Iowa House this legislative session would allow a person to use force - even deadly force - against someone who they reasonably believe is committing a violent felony or is a threat to kill or cause serious injury.

The proposal says a person has "no duty to retreat from any place where the person is lawfully," and it states that a person "may be wrong in the estimation of the danger or the force necessary to repel the danger as long as there is a reasonable basis for the belief." [...]

Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness said she's concerned about the proposed bill because it would implement a "shoot first ask questions later" policy that could be problematic in a college community like Iowa City where students have been known to drink and occasionally end up in the wrong house.

"We could have a situation where we would have a drunk student go into the wrong place, and any neighbor could shoot and kill them, and that would be acceptable," Lyness said. "It's a dangerous approach to take."

Countless commentaries on the Florida tragedy have been posted in the last ten days. Michelle Goldberg's post about conservatives smearing Martin's reputation is depressing but worth reading.

Speaking of off-base conservative takes on this tragedy, this exchange on Rush Limbaugh's show yesterday was mind-boggling:

CALLER:  [...] Now, [Florida Democratic Party state chair] Rod Smith -- correctly, I think -- is in defense of the law, but also agrees that an arrest should have been made in the case. Now here's my personal observation as a police officer, former police officer.  Mr. Zimmerman, I think, fits the profile of somebody that we might refer to as suffering from the John Wayne syndrome.  He was a person equipped with a weapon and charged with certain responsibilities as a Neighborhood Watch person that overstepped his bounds.  I don't think, um, he was necessarily a racist, but he made poor decisions based on poor judgment.

RUSH:  Jerry, what I've read is that Mr. Zimmerman -- who, again, the New York Times refers to as a "white Hispanic" and the rest of the media has now picked that up, 'cause that fits the template.  You need white-on-black here to gin this up.  I understand. He wants to be a cop.  He just loves law enforcement, and he's a self-appointed Neighborhood Watch commander, and he wanted to protect his neighborhood, and he just got a little overzealous and so forth. But we still don't know what the real facts of this are, I don't think.

We don't know all the facts, but somehow I think Rush would consider it more than "a little overzealous" if a black man pursued a confrontation with an unarmed white teenager before shooting him to death.

I don't want to end this post with Limbaugh's ravings. Here's a brief clip from last night's Rally for Justice for Trayvon Martin in Iowa City.

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