By David Rogers
Executive Director, ACLU of Oregon
Reposted with permission.
Dear friends, colleagues, allies, and community members,
I saw some of you at the vigil Saturday night in response to horrific violence committed on the MAX. All of you are in my thoughts. These are incredibly difficult times when confronted with utterly senseless and tragic violence. These are the moments that test us as individuals, organizations, and as a society.
We are sickened by President Trump who has embraced and promoted a racist and xenophobic platform. And it is clear that the elevation of these ideas to the highest office has emboldened people to act on the politics of hate. As a result, many of us live in fear while ignorant acts of prejudice, intimidation, and violence skyrocket. We have and will continue to be in the trenches with you fighting against this agenda.
I am writing this letter because the ACLU of Oregon wants to be in connection, dialogue, and solidarity with you as we struggle to move forward. In a world of sound bites, we have not conveyed the depth of our thoughts and feelings. I want to explain more about where we are coming from.
As you may know, we have recently taken what is considered by some to be an unpopular position by calling out Mayor Wheeler for viewpoint discrimination. Thank you for your patience in giving me space to further explain our position with more context.
Mayor Wheeler recently called on the federal government to revoke the permit for the “Trump Free Speech Rally” at a federal plaza downtown on June 4 and has called for a stop to the proposed anti-Muslim event by the same organizers that was scheduled for June 10. We have critiqued this position and believe it is the wrong choice.
Revoking or denying the permit without concrete evidence of an imminent threat of violence amounts to government censorship and is unconstitutional. The Constitution doesn’t allow the government to censor speech or expression based on viewpoint. Yes, even hate speech is protected by the First Amendment.
Standing up for the rights of hateful people is very difficult, especially in a climate where so many of us feel under attack. But there are very important reasons to do so. The Constitution doesn’t work unless it works for everyone, and it’s the Constitution that provides the best protections for oppressed communities.
This is personal for me. My family knows what it is like to be targeted by racism, intimidation, and violence. To be honest, defending the constitutional rights of people who espouse hate and whose values I despise is something I am always reluctant to do. There is no other way to say it; it pains me. And I recognize why this position may be unpopular.
A colleague told me that people in his organization interpreted ACLU’s message as “we need to follow the law” and expressed how disappointing that message was when the law hasn’t been working for our communities. Although I was dismayed by the interpretation of our message, I understand the sentiment.
Communities of color experience many damaging double burdens in our country. We are not only disproportionately hurt by crime, we are also ravaged by mass incarceration and the justice system that’s supposedly meant to keep us safe. This year was the 75th anniversary of the executive order that paved the way for the incarceration of over 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry. This country’s history is riddled with examples of how the government has used laws to marginalize and oppress communities.
The ACLU’s mission and history is to protect and advance the civil rights and civil liberties of all people in the United States, and so we are well aware of the history of abuses against communities of color, immigrants, religious minorities, and others. This history is exactly why we do not believe the government should censor anyone – even those people whose messages disgust us. It is a very dangerous and slippery slope. Do we really want government to determine what is legitimate, appropriate, and safe speech? The same government currently led by a president and attorney general who called Black Lives Matter terrorists last year? It is fairly easy to imagine what happens next. It is actually the First Amendment rights of oppressed communities and our activists that get silenced.
When we allow the government to pick and choose how to apply constitutional rights, it is marginalized communities that have the most to lose. Again, the Constitution doesn’t work unless it works for everyone.
There is a tremendous amount of pain, fear, and anger right now. Moments like these can get the best of us. Most of us are struggling for answers and to identify the right strategies for healing, safety, and community empowerment. There is plenty to consider and grapple with in times like these when responding to tragic, hate-driven violence.
Although we don’t purport to have the answers, the ACLU of Oregon will stay resolute in defending the rights of everyone. This work not only includes defending our rights to free speech and assembly, but also ending law enforcement profiling, stopping anti-immigrant ballot measures, fighting to protect LGBT communities, defending voting rights, and working against discrimination in all its forms.
On an optimistic note, I am inspired by the incredible acts of resistance and community building happening around the country and the world right now. All of our collective organizing and belief in the Constitution have led to some incredible victories in the past five months. The courts, backed by the hundreds of thousands of people who have been mobilizing, have stopped Trump’s Muslim Ban 1.0 and 2.0, Trump’s attack on sanctuary cities and states, and the racist voting laws in North Carolina, just to name a few amazing victories.
We will stand with people who are loudly saying the ideologies and actions of hate don’t reflect our community. We will amplify those messages. We will support counter-protests, as well as attempts to heal and address the trauma in our communities. And we will also push back on attempts to increase government surveillance, to further militarize the police, and to maintain the over-reliance on incarceration in the name of “safety.” It will not make us safer.
We hope to create intentional spaces to further discuss and explore these issues. We look forward to working with you, learning from you, and making the road as we walk it together in our collective struggle for justice.