Being a black constitutional and civil rights attorney with the ACLU can be more emotionally unsettling than I am sometimes willing to admit.
And over the years, I have struggled with decisions we’ve made to defend those who foment hate, who proselytize against my very existence and openly long for a return to the days when people like me were legally considered less than human. Because it means that as an ACLU attorney, I am defending them, too.
The organization that fought alongside the NAACP Legal Defense Fund for school desegregation in the 1950s and that helped overturn extreme voter ID laws in Pennsylvania and Arkansas in 2014, also intervened on behalf of the white nationalist who organized the rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, two weekends ago in which one woman was killed and many others injured.
The decision by the ACLU of Virginia to defend the group’s right to free speech and expression triggered a strong public reaction from both outside and within the organization—especially potent given the outpouring of public goodwill we received from a country reeling from the election of Donald Trump.
The ACLU takes the position that a threat to free speech anywhere will harm the progress of free speech and civil rights for groups that historically had been oppressed, as well. It has defended the constitutional rights of the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups in the past and our leaders have made it clear we will continue to do so in the future. And certainly, a number of planned rallies by hate groups in the coming days and weeks present a real opportunity for that to happen.
As a constitutional lawyer, I fully support the First Amendment and understand and agree that we must advocate for tolerance of ideas when the purpose is to create a space for tolerance. But this ignites an internal conflict for me when some of these groups seem to advocate for intolerance—of my existence.
The current climate has caused me and some of my ACLU colleagues to consider what it means to be black advocates for free speech, especially when we know some of this speech threatens our very existence and that of other people of color.
In the wake of Charlottesville, the ACLU adopted a policy change to impose stricter screenings and take legal requests from white supremacist groups on a case-by-case basis. We will no longer represent hate groups that demonstrate with firearms. I appreciate this change.
But in the end, I’m not convinced that more speech that spreads hate and fulfills a white, racist, and divisive agenda in this country will bring about a better result for people like me, who are its targets. The leaders of the white national movement openly admitted they used “free speech” grounds to test whether they could create more hostile protests without legal opposition.
During my two years at the ACLU, I have represented individuals to ensure school districts, cities, and local agencies did not impede on individuals’ constitutionally protected speech. For example, I represented students on a yearbook staff after their school district tried to censor their Black Lives Matter content from the yearbook. In another case, I advocated that a school district could not remove Black History Month paintings by a San Francisco-based artist solely because someone might be offended.
It feels good when I can use the First Amendment as a tool to ensure equality for people of color.
But there’s an emergence in this country of hate groups that unapologetically wage war on people they don’t envision in their version of America. Many of them are headquartered in Northern California and California’s Central Valley, where I live.
I grew up in the South, watched the KKK march through the Martin Luther King parade in my hometown. Just this week, I witnessed three cars in Fresno, in Central California, flying Confederate flags. Knowing these could be my neighbors, owners of businesses I frequent or, worse, people I know personally, make these instances particularly frightening.
Watching this resurgence of Confederate pride and flags across the country and hearing conversations that fail to recognize that these symbols are rooted in black dehumanization make navigating the space mentally and emotionally taxing. It makes me all the more committed to being true to my core racial justice values and true to the social justice community.
I have been outspoken within my office about what it means for me as a black attorney representing white supremacists. And my office has created a safe space for me to discuss how that feels. I’ve also made a point to check in with other black ACLU colleagues at my job, understanding that we are each processing this in our own way and might just want to talk.
The coronavirus news has gotten so bad that Trump is forced to try telling the truth
I heard something strange and remarkable and frightening at the White House coronavirus press briefing Tuesday. I’m pretty sure it was something very much like the truth.
Yes, the charts were scary. The numbers were more than daunting. But I keep up. I read the papers and listen to the experts. So it wasn’t the modeling — no matter how shocking — that surprised me.
Mad king Trump angers the gods
In the 4,000-year-old “Epic of Gilgamesh,” the arrogant eponymous king killed Humbaba, the giant guardian of the forest so that he could cut down the cedar stands in what is now northern Iraq to build his great city of Uruk. Gilgamesh’s people then diverted the Euphrates River to irrigate fields of barley.
To avenge Humbaba’s murder and the destruction of the forest, the gods cursed Gilgamesh and his people. One Sumerian writer mourned that “the earth turned white. It was one of our first stories about environmental destruction—in this case, a salt buildup from irrigation that turned the fields to desert.
Gullible media gushes over Trump’s ‘sober’ tone but he’ll be back to ranting like a lunatic soon enough
On Tuesday, Donald Trump held a press conference that sounded slightly less like the P.T. Barnum-style daily events whose ratings he's been bragging about ever since he took them over from Vice President Mike Pence, who Trump feared was hogging the spotlight. He managed to admit the death toll is likely to be a six-digit number and, after spending months minimizing the new coronavirus, even admitted this is worse than the flu. Naturally, the forever-gullible press immediately began praise Trump as if he were a two-year-old who went poo-poo in the potty like a big boy.