• May 29, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    As a presidential candidate in 2008, Barack Obama leveled broadsides against the counterterrorism efforts waged by the administration of George W. Bush. Deep into President Obama’s term many see a continuation if not drastic advancement of Bush counterterrorism policy.

    In an extensive piece Jo Becker and Scott Shane report for The New York Times that Obama has “preserved three major policies – rendition [where prisoners are sent to secretive sites to undergo harsh, often brutal interrogation], military commissions and indefinite detention – that have been targets of human rights groups since the 2001 terrorist attacks.” 

    The story also states that the president, who as a candidate railed against the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, and promised if elected to close it, did not have a plan to convince Congress to shutter the prison.

    A major piece of The Times reporting focuses on the personal involvement of the president in sessions to determine which terrorist suspects to kill or capture. “It is the strangest of bureaucratic rituals: Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die.” The president, The Times reports, will then sign off on who to target.

    In a piece titled “Obama the Warrior” for Salon, Glenn Greenwald highlights the support Obama has garnered from some of the far right architects of the Bush counterterrorism policy, noting a progressive myth that the far right never lauds the president:

    Virtually every one of the most far-right neocon Bush officials – including Dick Cheney himself – has spent years now praising Obama for continuing their Terrorism policies which Obama the Senator and Presidential Candidate once so harshly denounced. Every leading GOP candidate except Ron Paul wildly praised Obama for killing U.S. citizen Anwar Awlaki without a shred of due process and for continuing to drop unaccountable bombs on multiple Muslim countries.

  • April 3, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Inimai Chettiar, Policy Counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, where she serves as national legislative counsel to end mass incarceration in states across the country.

    Yesterday a divided Supreme Court ruled in Florence v. Burlington that any person arrested can be subject to a strip search - even for a minor offense or traffic violation – without any reason to suspect that they may be carrying a weapon or contraband. (Read the ACLU press release here.)

    As disturbing as the practice of subjecting people accused of minor offenses to degrading strip searches is, it wouldn’t be a problem if those people weren’t thrown behind bars in the first place. Unfortunately, U.S. jails are full of people accused of minor, nonviolent crimes. One such person was Albert Florence (pictured), a 35-year-old Black man erroneously arrested in 2005 for failing to pay a traffic fine he had already paid –  and whose experience is the center of the case decided by the Court.

    A New Jersey state trooper pulled over Florence’s pregnant wife as she was driving Florence and their four-year-old son to dinner to celebrate their purchase of a home.  Because Florence owned the vehicle, the officer ran his license and discovered a warrant for an outstanding noncriminal traffic fine. Despite the fact that Florence had already paid the fine and carried an official letter proving it, the police handcuffed and arrested him and dragged him off to jail.  He was incarcerated for six days and subjected to two invasive strip searches. As Florence recounts, "I was just told, 'Do as you're told.' Wash in this disgusting soap and obey the directions of the officer who was instructing me to turn around, lift my genitals up, turn around, and squat." The next day a judge freed Florence, confirming that he had in fact paid his fine.  (You can hear more from Florence in an ACS podcast interview. )

    In a 5-4 opinion, the Court held that two New Jersey county jails had not violated the Fourth Amendment by routinely strip searching all new detainees including those, like Albert Florence, who had been arrested for minor offenses and were unlikely to spend more than one night in jail. With 13 million Americans jailed each year, the decision could have far reaching consequences. 

    At the same time, the Court was careful to note that the strip search policies it upheld did not involve any physical contact with the detainee, and only applied to detainees who were housed with the general population. Whether those reservations prove to be meaningful constraints on the power of prison officials to strip search detainees remains to be seen. More significantly, perhaps, at least 10 states already prohibit routine strip searches without reasonable suspicion, including New Jersey. (Read the ACLU’s amicus brief submitted on behalf of former attorneys general of New Jersey.)

    Yesterday’s ruling provides the country with an opportune moment to reflect on our epidemic of mass incarceration. There are six million people currently in prison or under correctional supervision in the U.S. — more than were in Stalin’s gulags.

  • March 6, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    While a large public school district in Minnesota has taken steps, prompted by legal action, to combat discrimination against LGBT students, the U.S. Department of Education has released information, which perhaps not surprisingly, reveals persistent discrimination against black students in public schools nationwide.

    Reporting for the Pioneer Press, Sarah Horner details the Anoka-Hennepin school district board’s vote, with one member resigning in protest, to “accept a settlement agreement with [Dylon] Frei and five other former and current district students who had filed two lawsuits over a policy requiring staff to remain neutral when the topic of sexual orientation came up in the classroom.” As Horner notes Frei and the other students had repeatedly faced sexual harassment and gender stereotyping. Frei, Horner reports, told a crown outside the school board offices that his peers had repeatedly called him “fag,” and physically harmed him.

    The school board voting 5-1 approved a consent decree that will resolve the students’ lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the National Center for Lesbian Rights. The decree also resolves a separate complaint lodged in Nov. 2010 by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education.

    The consent decree filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota includes a number of requirements that Anoka-Hennepin school officials will have to undertake to ensure they comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bar harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

    For example the school district, the largest in Minnesota, must retain a consultant to review the district’s policy on harassment, create and implement “a comprehensive plan for preventing and addressing student-on-student sex-based harassment,” and improve “its system for maintaining records of investigation and responding to allegations of harassment.”

  • December 15, 2011

    by Jeremy Leaming

    On Dec. 15, 1791 the Bill of Rights was ratified, making today its 220th anniversary. In November, 1941 FDR established Dec. 15 as a day to celebrate the Bill of Rights.

    The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts is offering some resources for both students and teachers about what the late Bernard Schwartz dubbed the “classic inventory of governmental restrictions that Madison termed ‘the great rights of mankind.’”

    The Obama administration is also joining the celebration. The White House’s Bill of Rights Day proclamation reads, in part, “Throughout our country’s history, generations have risen to uphold the principles outlined in our Bill of Rights and advance equality for all Americans. The liberties we enjoy today are possible only because of these brave patriots, from the service members who have defended our freedom to the citizens who have braved billy clubs and fire hoses in the hope of extending America’s promise across lines of color and creed. On Bill of Rights Day, we celebrate this proud legacy and resolve to pass to our children an America worthy of our Founders’ vision.”

    Others are marking the day, however, by highlighting a piece of legislation – the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) – that they argue seriously threatens the tenets of the Bill of Rights, by greatly expanding executive power.

    The Bill of Rights Defense Committee says the NDAA “contains the most potentially oppressive national security powers we’ve seen in our lifetimes, easily worse than any Bush administration policy.”

    Writing for the ACLU’s Blog of Rights, Chris Anders says the NDAA “would authorize the president to send the military literally anywhere in the world to imprison civilians without charge or trail. Prison based on suspicion alone. The power is so sweeping that the president would be able to direct the military to use its powers within the United States itself, and even lock up American citizens without charge or trial.”

  • October 7, 2011
    Guest Post

    By Inimai Chettiar, policy counsel for the ACLU’s Center for Justice, and Courtney Bowie, senior staff attorney for the ACLU's Racial Justice Project

    Professor Derrick Bell, who passed away on Wednesday, was a racial justice pioneer and teacher who enlightened many. His actions spoke as loudly as his words and influence the work we do today at the ACLU. He was the first black law professor at Harvard Law School, yet in 1990 he vowed to take an unpaid leave of absence until the school hired a black woman for its tenured faculty. That didn’t happen until 1998, and by then Bell had moved on to NYU Law School, where he remained until the end of his career.

    It is groundbreaking scholarship like that of Professor Bell that gives life to the ACLU’s current work. In his book, Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism, he described, among other things, the forces that prevented Harvard from hiring black women as tenured law professors. Professor Bell (pictured) was not afraid to state the truth: that structural and insidious racism pervades our society, institutions, and thinking. He pioneered the development of critical race theory – which recognizes that racism is embedded deep beneath the surface of our laws and legal institutions. He explained that, even where there is no de jure segregation or explicit racism, there are often far more harmful subtle forces that hinder access to equality and result in de facto segregation.

    In order to understand the structural nature of racism, we need to follow Professor Bell through the proverbial “looking glass.”  Things aren’t always what they seem. The work of Bell and other scholars showed that, in order to achieve true racial equality, it’s insufficient to eliminate de jure segregation laws if the majority of our institutions continue to be created by, for, and around heterosexual white men of privilege. When our societal or legal “norm” automatically leaves out women and people of color, it may look like these groups are asking for a handout or an “unfair advantage” when what they are really asking is to be included in the creation of our institutions and laws.