Can the ACLU Remake Itself as a Mass Movement for Progressive Change?

Can the ACLU Remake Itself as a Mass Movement for Progressive Change?

Can the ACLU Remake Itself as a Mass Movement for Progressive Change?

Through a new “People Power” initiative, the country’s oldest civil-liberties organization wants to go beyond the courts—and into the streets.


In February 2017, just a few weeks after Donald Trump began rolling out executive orders targeting undocumented immigrants, activists in Phoenix submitted a petition to the City Council requesting that Phoenix become a sanctuary city. It was an ambitious demand: Phoenix sits in the middle of a state with some of the most draconian anti-immigrant laws in the country, at the epicenter of what was, for nearly a quarter of a century, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s brutal fiefdom. Declaring Phoenix a sanctuary city would have meant defying both law and tradition, as well as the orders of the new president. The council promptly rejected the petition in a 7–2 vote.

By July, however, the city had revised its policy. The Phoenix Police Department announced that its officers would no longer question the immigration status of many of the people they dealt with. “Driving while Latino” would no longer be an occasion for cops to pull over a car and demand its occupants’ papers. Police would no longer demand the status of crime victims and witnesses; they’d also be prohibited from cornering students on school grounds. Phoenix was on its way to becoming a sanctuary city.

What had changed during those five months? Victories are rarely simple, and the story of how Phoenix flipped course is no different: Behind it are years of organizing by immigrant groups, advocates, and activists. But it can also be traced, in part, to what Assistant City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. described in an e-mail to other officials as “One of the most reasonable groups I’ve talked with since coming here.” The group, he continued, “was very pleasant. A former high school teacher, a magazine editor, 2 attys, a massage therapist, and two Hispanic advocates who I’ve never seen before. Clearly wanting to work with us in a non adversarial way.”

Those seven activists belonged to People Power, a grassroots initiative launched in early 2017 by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU has long used litigators to advance civil rights in courts—to expand the reach of justice through landmark cases like Scopes, Korematsu, Miranda, and Obergefell. But in a fundamental transformation, the ACLU is now incorporating volunteer organizers to work in tandem with its staff attorneys. The hope, said executive director Anthony Romero, is to seed a kind of citizen-led civil-rights defense force, and to transform the ACLU into an organization with clout at the ballot box.

“We enacted a sanctuary-city law in Phoenix…as a result of People Power activism!” Romero exclaimed in a phone interview earlier this year. (It was a slight exaggeration; the victory, though an improvement, was not a full-blown embrace of sanctuary policies. But in the age of Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions, of mass deportations and border walls, who could fault Romero’s enthusiasm?) “We never would have accomplished that entirely on our own,” he continued. “If there is one thing I will give Donald Trump credit for, he has given birth to what may be a golden age of citizen activism the likes of which I haven’t seen in my adult life, where ordinary folks turn out in record numbers. In 20 or 30 years, this organization could have the type of citizen activism that we usually associate with groups like the NRA or AARP.”

People Power emerged out of the ACLU’s sudden, explosive growth in the wake of Trump’s election. In Arizona, statewide membership jumped from 5,500 to more than 22,000; nationwide, it soared from 450,000 to 1.84 million. Followers on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram quadrupled. Donations skyrocketed, from less than $5 million annually in online contributions in recent years to $86 million in the year after the 2016 elections. Meanwhile, the ACLU went on a hiring spree—116 new positions at national offices around the country. Many new staffers are supporting People Power, which now has 250,000 members in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

In its first year, People Power has focused its efforts on voting rights and immigration issues, with activists from across the country gathering signatures, knocking on doors, and meeting with officials. The state with the most members per capita is Oregon, with 7,759 volunteers. In Arizona, there are 4,709 members, who have proved to be especially motivated, several said, because people in the state have been living amid Trump-like conditions for years—since long before January 20, 2017.

In Phoenix, some 20 or so core members have had especially yeasty results. The group first came together in March 2017, and its members quickly focused their newly awakened activist energy on the sanctuary-city effort. This was a savvy choice: With established groups like Puente, Chicanos por la Causa, and LUCHA (Living United for Change in Arizona) already on the case, the People Power novices had a ready place to plug in; but the move also fit perfectly within People Power’s larger “Freedom Cities” initiative, which the group launched to “defend immigrants from Trump’s mass deportation agenda.”

As a first step, People Power members wanted to meet with Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams about Operations Order 4.48, the police department’s immigration-enforcement guidelines. The order had been made significantly harsher in the wake of Arizona Senate Bill 1070, also known as the “Show me your papers” bill, which was passed in 2010 and placed a big red target on the state’s undocumented immigrants. But People Power’s repeated requests were turned down. So two members—RaeAnne Marsh, the magazine editor, and Orien Nelson, a private attorney—suggested forming a research team to make a presentation to the city manager, effectively going over Williams’s head. The group also lobbied council members in conjunction with established groups.

A big concern was the Order 4.48 guidelines that officers used to determine if there was “reasonable suspicion for questioning a person about their immigration status,” said Ben Clark, 37, a professional-development specialist at a Phoenix high school. “Several of these guidelines were examples of blatant racial profiling,” such as “significant difficulty speaking English.” People Power’s goal was to show that the policy was not only racist, but also illegal.

The group’s strategy worked. On June 1, 2017, People Power members met with City Manager Ed Zuercher and his colleague Dohoney, who wrote the complimentary e-mail. One week later, on June 8, People Power got its meeting with the police chief. “When we met with [Chief] Williams,” said Marsh, 69, “she wanted to pigeonhole our group.” But, Marsh continued, “we were all ages. All backgrounds. She didn’t know what to make of us. There’s power in our diversity… young, old, white, Latino, black.”

A month later, the city adopted new policies under which the police would no longer rush to do the job of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Not everyone was pleased. If enemies are a measure of success, Phoenix People Power has done well. Judicial Watch, the conservative watchdog group, filed a public-records request “to uncover the steps that led to the change.” The headline of its blog post: “Phoenix Becomes Illegal Alien Sanctuary after Leftist Group Orders it in Private Meeting with Police Chief.”

When Anthony Romero became the ACLU’s executive director in 2001, just a week before 9/11, he envisioned moving the organization away from “checkbook participants,” who donated money but were not active, to “bring[ing] the ACLU back to the bosom of the American people.” Some modernization efforts were undertaken: a first-ever national member conference and a beefed-up Web presence, among other things.

“But all of those efforts were rather anemic, to be totally candid with you,” Romero admitted. “We finally got into the middle of the pack by doing what everyone else had been doing for years.” Romero wanted more citizen involvement—so, in 2015, he hired a headhunting firm to search for a national political director.

Faiz Shakir, then a staffer for US Senate minority leader Harry Reid, interviewed for the job. “I argued for the ACLU being much more of a grassroots organization than it was in the past—and using the membership to be political agitators,” Shakir, now 38, recalled of that interview.

“He was very energetic,” Romero said. But, he added, “I thought I needed someone with more experience, more chops.” Besides, Romero wasn’t ready to embrace a vision as radical as the one Shakir had proposed—a vast organizing effort that would require a big rollout, as opposed to some safer and more sensible plan that could be cautiously beta-tested in a handful of states. Shakir didn’t get the job.

Then came Trump. Romero picked up the phone.

“I went back to Faiz and said, ‘OK, now is the time for the fresh blood, the new perspective,'” Romero recalled. “‘Shame on us if we cannot find substantive things for people to do in a civil-liberties crisis.'”

Shakir, who before working for Reid had been vice president of the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, jumped into the job early last year. He said it had become “pretty obvious that when we didn’t have the presidency or Congress or state legislatures or governorships, your power was going to be with the people.”

He began by rolling out exactly what he’d pitched to Romero: a bold 50-state plan for what he called “People Power.” The ACLU e-mailed members to organize a nationwide “resistance training” that would be livestreamed from Miami on March 11, 2017. More than 200,000 people watched this webinar in more than 2,200 homes and in public spaces all over America.

“We’ve opened the doors to the church, and now come in, let’s do this together,” Romero told the audience. “We’ll do the work in the courts. You do the work in the streets.”

What this has amounted to in practice is that the ACLU has provided activists with blueprints for two campaigns: “Freedom Cities” as well as its more recent “Let People Vote” campaign, which centers on fighting gerrymandering and voter-suppression laws. And it has encouraged activists to make these campaigns their own. While the national office offers significant guidance, the movement is meant to be flexible, even a bit messy.

“This roadmap is meant to get people started, but the movement is yours,” the ACLU posted on its site after the event. “The United States has always been, and remains, what we make it.”

Shakir is evangelical about creating a powerful citizen-driven movement. “We’re investing in the long-haul effort to change hearts and minds,” he said over lunch at Bobby Van’s Steakhouse, in the morning shadow of the New York Stock Exchange. “I have absolutely no idea what will happen. Some people worry. I get excited.”

Shakir’s suit fit the crowd: In both appearance and power-lunch venue choice, he seemed like the consummate Beltway insider. But he’s not one of them, said Becky Bond, a senior adviser for Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign and an architect of its grassroots volunteer effort, who now consults for the ACLU on organizing strategies. “He was an incredibly powerful behind-the-scenes player, who clearly was always willing to do the right thing when it was hard,” she said. “I think Faiz is playing the short game in a strong way, and everything is adding up to a brilliant long game. He’s effectively leveraging a movement to resist Trump, but he’s doing it in a way that builds out long-term infrastructure to prevent the next Trump.”

Still, there’s a long history of failed hopes in the fight for progressive change. Movements like Occupy have blazed into being, only to fizzle. There are several reasons for this, said Marshall Ganz, who began organizing in Mississippi for the civil-rights movement in 1964 and went on to work with Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers of America. (Ganz currently teaches at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.)

“Since the ’70s, it’s been moving more and more toward mobilizing and away from organizing,” Ganz explained. The decline began with direct mail, “and the digital stuff has really accelerated that.” What’s been missing, Ganz asserted, is local organizing. “So they wind up just being these moments, but they don’t really turn into movements because of a lack of organizational capacity. Occupy struggled with structural challenges. Social movements often react to the experience with structures that they’re resisting as oppressive. And so they go to the opposite of that: no structure. Then you wind up in what Jo Freeman calls the ‘tyranny of structurelessness.'”

Ganz was the architect of Barack Obama’s grassroots effort starting in 2007. “We built an organization of a million and a half people,” he said. “Then Obama pissed it away”—proof to him that electoral campaigns are a waste of time when it comes to creating a base for progressive politics. The grassroots movement Indivisible emerged after the 2016 election, but “their challenge has been, like Gandhi once said, ‘There goes my people—I must catch up with them.’ In other words, all of a sudden there were 6,000 local groups, and they needed to figure out how to train them, how to give support, how to make the most of it.”

The ACLU has the infrastructure in place to support People Power members, which sets it apart, Ganz continued. “I think their challenge is to move beyond just being an electronic list to effectively organize local and state groups so that they can begin to wield more power. The impression I have is that it’s begun to happen.” The ACLU has local chapters already in place, as well as funding for a long-haul effort, Ganz said. “The power of the NRA is that they’ve got 15,000 of these groups that are not going away. They do their rifle practice and all that, and then they become [the NRA’s] political base. The ACLU could have that kind of potential. They changed their motto to ‘We the People.’ That’s a pretty significant reframing. If you think of yourself as ‘We the lawyers who are defending rights’ versus ‘We the people who are fighting for our rights’—that’s a very different idea.”

People Power echoes the ACLU’s activist roots. Although it became known over the decades as the domain of Ivy League–educated First Amendment defenders, the ACLU started as “an adjunct of the radical labor movement,” as Laura Weinrib, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, writes in her book The Taming of Free Speech: America’s Civil Liberties Compromise. In this early activist cosmology, free speech was a “tool of social justice”—a means to an end, not the end itself, as it became in later years.

The ACLU was created on January 19, 1920. It emerged out of the first Red Scare, when A. Mitchell Palmer, the US attorney general under President Woodrow Wilson, spearheaded a crackdown on radicals who, he believed, were conspiring to foment their own Bolshevik-style revolution. Palmer formed the General Intelligence Division, putting a young J. Edgar Hoover in charge. The unit went after union organizers, “reds,” anarchists, and immigrants. These so-called “Palmer raids” swept up thousands of people, many without warrants; scores were brutalized, detained, and ultimately deported. Card files were created for 450,000 Americans deemed dangerous.

In the face of these assaults on basic liberties, a small cadre of progressive-minded thinkers and activists, including Roger Nash Baldwin, Crystal Eastman, Albert DeSilver, and others, joined forces to create a new legal corps dedicated to defending “labor’s rights to organize, picket, and strike,” as Weinrib writes elsewhere. Baldwin, a charismatic radical and a conscientious objector who opposed US entry into World War I, became the ACLU’s first executive director. Significantly, Baldwin himself was not a lawyer—a reflection, perhaps, of the early ACLU’s deference to direct action (and skepticism, in some quarters, toward the very courts to which it was appealing).

An early test of the ACLU’s activist model occurred on March 23, 1920, in Passaic, New Jersey, against a police edict that forbade meetings of the Amalgamated Textile Workers of America. Some 300 union members listened as Norman Thomas, the famed perennial socialist candidate for president, read the New Jersey State Constitution. The police ordered the meeting shut down, but Thomas kept talking. The officers then told the owner of the hall to extinguish the lights, so candles were procured. When union organizer Frank Lateviec took a turn reading in Polish, a cop yanked him off the platform. (It was illegal in Passaic to give an address in a foreign language.) That was when “[t]he attorneys of the American Civil Liberties Union, paper and pencil in hand, eagerly demanded the bluecoat’s name and number,” wrote Lewis S. Gannett, days later, in The Nation. “The lawyers announced that Lateviec would institute [a] civil suit for assault to test the police right to interfere.”

Challenges of this nature continued, with the ACLU taking an active part in the union strikes by coal- and steelworkers in the 1920s and ’30s. By the late 1930s, however, the organization had drifted away from its social-justice mission as well as its movement roots, ultimately earning the enmity of labor. In 1940, it excluded Communists from holding leadership positions, causing a rift, and, in the ensuing years, championed a rigid (albeit liberal) anticommunism. As the years progressed, the organization became the domain of litigators.

Jamie Bonnell is typical of the way that members came to People Power in Phoenix. A week after Trump’s victory, she went online and sent $100 to the ACLU. “It was my first time donating to the organization, and it was a significant portion of my budget,” said Bonnell, 32, who makes ends meet with a mix of part-time jobs—as an adjunct English professor at Mesa Community College, an instructor and chair of the writing department at the Phoenix Center for the Arts, and investigator at a legal firm, among other things. Then she forgot about the $100; her energy went into meeting a friend each Wednesday at a local diner, where they wrote as many as 50 postcards to legislators per sitting, hoping to influence votes. Bonnell wanted to be more engaged but didn’t know how. Then an e-mail came from the ACLU. Would she be willing to host a “resistance training”? She quickly thought: “No.”

Her reticence?

“I felt in need of guidance and leadership,” Bonnell said. How could she mentor strangers when she needed help herself? Besides, she reasoned, her house was too small—550 square feet, hardly big enough for a meeting.

“Then, within an hour or two, someone volunteering for the ACLU sent me a text with the same ask,” Bonnell said. “It was smart of the ACLU to double their push. The second message forced me to question my initial hesitation. I figured if I had the will/stubbornness to keep doing the small-scale letter-writing thing, I ought to give whatever I had.”

On March 11, 2017, 23 people showed up at her door to take part in the resistance-training webinar being broadcast from Miami. Bonnell squeezed everyone in by using floor pillows “and a bevy of borrowed folding chairs from family and neighbors.”

Some nine months later, in December, Bonnell was seated in the Coronado PHX, a cafe and gathering spot for progressive activists, with six other members of the Phoenix People Power team who were interested in police issues. Each was putting in from five to 15 hours of volunteer work a week. Most had never been politically active before this; they said they wanted to do something more consequential, as opposed to just showing up at protests. When I asked if any of them had known the others before attending the webinar, the resounding answer was no.

“Now I spend more time with these folks than I do my own family,” said Ben Clark, the high-school educator, who has two children under the age of 7. Heads nodded.

Jennifer Linzy, 33, an operations assistant at two music venues in Phoenix, recalled her grandmother often talking about the hard economic and political times of the 1930s. “My grandmother said, ‘You get five minutes to cry. Then you get up and do something about it,'” Linzy said. “They just took things into their own hands back then. We have to do the same today.”

On this particular evening, the group was talking with Sandra Castro Solis, organizing director for the ACLU of Arizona. Most of the seven were hunched over notebooks or smartphones filled with tasks—meeting dates with politicians; calls to second- and third-tier (i.e., less active) members; voluminous files from a police-abuse case that had been obtained with a Freedom of Information Act request and needed to be read; and so on.

“We’ve been fighting defense for too long,” Clark said.

“It seems impossible to do things at the federal level,” Bonnell chimed in. “But not at the local level.”

Now those at the table were working to create a civilian police-review board—a push spurred, in part, by the police crackdown on peaceful protesters during Trump’s visit to Phoenix last August. Despite using tear gas and flash-bang grenades on the crowd, the police admitted no wrongdoing. So People Power put out a call for citizen videos of the melee, while ACLU lawyers simultaneously demanded that police turn over body-camera and surveillance footage. After scouring some 1,000 hours of video from the cops, the organization found many instances that suggested the attack was premeditated.

“The Phoenix Police Department is accountable to no one,” said Orien Nelson, the attorney who helped helm the group’s sanctuary-city push earlier in the year. Along with the rest of the group, she’s now wading into the upcoming City Council races in the hope of electing candidates who are sympathetic to the idea of a review board.

“We want to make the council election a referendum on the police,” Nelson said.

As for Solis, she wants to develop organizers, not just protesters, out of these fights. “I don’t want activists,” she said. “I was taught when I got into organizing that activists are like a light switch: turn on and off. You show up to a protest—OK, you did your thing, now you’re going home and you’re not going to show up till the next protest. Organizers are always working to empower folks. The ACLU is coming back home to its origins. ACLU supporters have always wanted to get involved in the work.”

Solis, a co-founder of Puente, the immigrant-justice organization, is adjusting to the ACLU’s culture. She said her previous jobs were always “now, now, now.” With ACLU lawyers, it’s “slow, slow, slow.” But she understands that things like filing FOIA requests take time, and that the knowledge gained makes the organization’s actions more powerful.

“Here, it’s like I’m a kid in a candy store,” she said, referring to the ACLU and its vast resources. “I have people that want to volunteer. I have an attorney. I have a policy and communications team. I don’t have to do this all by myself. Of course we’re going to make things happen.”

People Power is active in all 50 states, and it’s finding success in a number of them. As in Phoenix, the group helped change police policy in Ann Arbor, Michigan, so that officers don’t target undocumented immigrants and then help ICE deport them. In Wisconsin, members are pushing the State Legislature to pass a bill that would require redistricting to be taken out of the hands of politicians and given to a nonpartisan entity instead. At the Georgia ACLU, executive director Andrea Young is stoked about the ground commitment to the “Let People Vote” campaign. “The People Power strategy is reengaging people,” she said of the group, which is going to focus on redistricting.

The story is similar in Colorado, where the group has hired a voting-rights campaign coordinator. “The focus of her position is taking all the energy in People Power and mobilizing it towards legislation in the upcoming session to expand voting rights,” explained John Krieger, spokesman for the ACLU of Colorado.

In Phoenix, two core groups have formed: One is working on police and immigration issues, while the other is focused on streamlining the cumbersome process of restoring the voting rights of people convicted of felonies. These volunteers are powerful “because they have a different idea of what’s possible,” said Becky Bond, the organizing strategist. “They often can see this more clearly than those of us who’ve worked in politics for a whole career.”

Shakir understood this when he put out a nationwide call for People Power members to meet with police during the resistance training. Lawyer colleagues scoffed: Why bother? The cops would ignore them. Shakir explained that many volunteers will “generally give the police department the benefit of the doubt.” They needed to learn firsthand how bad some departments are. “Remember, you’ve had years of experience with this,” he recalled saying. “But these guys, we need to bring them along.”

It was that ask from Shakir that initiated the efforts by Phoenix People Power members to speak with the police chief about her department’s interaction with undocumented immigrants. Members also phoned and e-mailed lower-level precinct commanders to set up meetings. Nothing happened. Nelson said she had previously thought this was “something that a citizen should be able to do fairly easily.” The police reticence baffled her.

Using volunteers is a big cultural shift for the ACLU. “Initially, I think many people didn’t fully understand how it would strengthen the ACLU,” Shakir said of the attitude of longtime staffers. “That has changed radically—I think almost everyone across the board sees the value of it.”

In Phoenix, all the staffers I spoke with, including executive director Alessandra Soler and legal director Kathy Brody, insisted there isn’t any tension between the ACLU’s staff attorneys and the new organizers. “It’s really cool for me to be working with organizers,” Brody said. “I can’t do everything in the courts. I do think it’s sort of like greater than the sum of its parts.”

Yet the transition hasn’t been entirely without its bumps. While the reborn ACLU has managed to avoid serious internal rifts between its new activist flank and its legal old guard, the same cannot be said for the group and its broader base. The most notable eruption took place last summer, when a grub pit of far-right extremists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, with guns, tiki torches, and weaponized automobiles. As it had done in the past—most famously in Skokie, Illinois, in 1978—the ACLU came to the white supremacists’ legal defense, arguing in court that they had a First Amendment right to protest in the heart of the city. But after the protest exploded in violence—and 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed—the newly revved-up resistance wasn’t standing for it. “The ACLU Has Blood on Its Hands in Charlottesville” ran one outraged headline.

Within several days, the ACLU had moved to cauterize the wound by announcing that it would no longer represent white supremacists wishing to protest with firearms. But the episode flagged a fundamental tension, one that has been present in shifting proportions since the organization’s earliest days but has recently flared back into focus: Is the ACLU a vehicle for progressive change, or is it a defender of constitutional principles? And if the answer is “both,” how does it balance these two commitments?

Shakir acknowledges that this tension “can feel a little bit muddled. That nuance is not always easy to understand.” For his part, Romero views People Power as a bridge to understanding the ACLU’s absolutism about fighting for the free-speech rights of everyone. “I think People Power allows us to have a deeper rapport with our constituents,” Romero said. “It provides us an opportunity to talk to our base about what we do and how we do it and why we do it. We never had that kind of portal before.”

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