By Mike Lillis - 07/20/13 10:00 AM EDT
A number of House Democrats are lining up behind the Rev. Jesse Jackson's threat for an economic boycott of Florida following the not-guilty verdict in the death of Trayvon Martin.
The lawmakers, all members of the Congressional Black Caucus, are fierce critics of the process that led to George Zimmerman's acquittal in the fatal shooting last year of the Florida teenager. Exerting pressure on Florida's economy as Jackson is suggesting, they said, could help overturn the state's controversial stand-your-ground laws that many contend contributed to the tragedy.
Clay said he'd like to see "a multi-pronged strategy" that includes legislation, "getting laws overturned by courts, as well as an economic boycott."
Rep. Bennie Thompson echoed that message. The Mississippi Democrat called the verdict "a travesty" that "does not speak well for this country," and said he would "absolutely" support an economic boycott of the state.
"[It] could have significant economic significance if properly organized," Thompson said Friday. "What I gather from a lot of people who have feelings about it, he [Jackson] would get … support."
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said she's also on board.
"I would support whatever it takes to get these stand-your-ground laws off the books," she said.
Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch volunteer who shot Martin in February 2012 as the two fought in a Sanford, Fla., community where Zimmerman lived and Martin was visiting his father.
Zimmerman said Martin was slamming his head into the concrete sidewalk, forcing him to fire in self-defense. Martin's supporters note that the confrontation was initiated by Zimmerman, who had trailed Martin after suspecting him of wrongdoing, and wonder how he could be allowed to stalk and kill an unarmed teenager without being punished.
In their defense arguments, Zimmerman's attorneys did not explicitly invoke Florida's stand your ground law, which allows gun owners to use deadly force in certain cases when they feel threatened, even when there's an opportunity to flee the confrontation. But the statute did play a significant role in the case. Zimmerman was not initially charged with a crime, for instance, because the local police believed he had acted legally in self-defense.
A jury last week sided with Zimmerman, leading to nationwide protests, renewing calls for tougher gun laws and dredging up age-old questions about racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Many in the CBC are also urging the Department of Justice to file civil rights charges against Zimmerman – an option the agency says it's examining.
Jackson, a civil rights icon and head of the Rainbow Push Coalition, which advocates for stronger social programs, told CNN Thursday that, if the DOJ does not file federal charges against Zimmerman, he would consider launching an economic boycott on the entire state of Florida.
"No doubt, the inclination [is] to boycott Florida, to stop conventions, to isolate Florida as a kind of apartheid state, given this whole stand-your-ground law," Jackson said. "Homicides against blacks have tripled since this law has been in existence. Now more homicides and more guns make us less secure."
Jackson is not alone. Earlier in the week, Stevie Wonder announced that he'll refuse to play in Florida or any other state with a stand-your-ground law.
Clay predicted Wonder's move would spread to other artists and entertainers.
"It's significant," he said, "because a lot of the artist community follows him."
Florida Democrats were quick to push back against the boycott threats, warning that they'll have no influence on the conservative lawmakers who control the statehouse.
"The right-wing ideologues who control the Florida legislature couldn't care less about a state-wide boycott. All they care about is the right – these so-called rights – for everyone to bear arms," Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) said Friday.
"The idea that somehow having a convention boycott will change their minds is really fanciful," he added. "It would have an impact on employment, particularly in Florida, [and] it would probably have an impact on business, but that's simply not what motivates the right-wing zealots who control the legislature in Tallahassee."
Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) agreed, arguing that the economic threats are "emotional reactions" to a problem that's much more complex than a boycott could solve.
"Boycotts have to be very carefully considered," he said. "The Florida legislature is not forward-leaning, and I don't think that pressure on them – even if you had a 100 percent boycott [where] nobody comes to Florida – I don't think that would cause them to do anything."
In an unannounced press conference Friday, President Obama weighed in on the issue. The president noted that criminal justice cases are largely the purview of state and local authorities, and suggested that should remain the case. But he also floated several areas where he thinks the federal government can play a role in preventing similar tragedies in the future. He singled out possible DOJ efforts to improve law enforcement training and examine state laws "to see if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than diffuse potential altercations."
"If we're sending a message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there's a way for them to exit from a situation, is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we'd like to see?" Obama asked.
"If Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?"