Civil Defense: The ACLU Is Ready for Trump

And prepared to go on the offensive, too.

Still from HUAC’s “Operation Abolition,” which, according to the ACLU, used real news footage to portray student activists as violent and dangerous “hardcore Communist agents” and “indoctrinated and trained dupes.”

In only the first week after Donald Trump’s election, the American Civil Liberties Union — along with top-tier nonprofits like Planned Parenthood — saw a huge surge in donations, memberships, and social media engagement. Writing on the ACLU’s blog on Nov. 14, executive director Anthony Romero said that the “roughly 120,000 donations, totaling more than $7.2 million” were “this is the greatest outpouring of support for the ACLU in our nearly 100-year history, greater than the days after 9/11.”

Californians are fortunate to live in a state where voting rights and reproductive rights don’t face continual deaths-by-a-thousand-cuts from legislatures hostile to democratic norms and women’s bodies. But even with a Democratic governor and newly sworn-in Democratic supermajorities in both houses of state government, California continues to grapple with its ugly history as a bastion of over-incarceration. And — should Congress implement some of Trump’s more heinous campaign promises — local law enforcement throughout the Golden State could become de facto deputies in federal stings to deport millions of undocumented residents.

The possibility of having to defend hard-won freedoms on multiple fronts feels dizzying. But Christine P. Sun, associate director of the ACLU of Northern California, says that her organization is ready. (Disclosure: I worked for the New York State affiliate from 2006 to 2008, but Sun and I never interacted.)

“There are a lot of different flanks of our work,” she says, “but I would say, based on the promises of the Trump campaign, that the main three are protecting the rights of immigrants, protecting the rights of Muslim communities, and fighting against more government surveillance.”

It may sound slightly impolitic, as every left-leaning American is experiencing pangs of wistfulness at the Obamas’ departure from the White House, but the fact of the matter is that the Obama presidency was a mixed bag for immigrants. In spite of the Dreamer program and opposition to state laws like Arizona’s SB 1070 — the “Show Me Your Papers” law — deportations reached record highs, tearing apart hundreds of thousands of families. For Trump to build on that, the logistics would be ugly.

“We’re talking about an administration that has threatened to deport three times that number of folks,” Sun says. Upward of 11 million, in fact. “As you know, it’s not as if there’s a database of folks who are here without status. In order to deport that many people, the federal government would have to engage in massive dragnets. We saw that somewhat in the Bush administration, where there were massive workplace and neighborhood raids, but the Trump administration — at least, according to campaign promises, would have to multiply those efforts by a factor of 10.”

To pre-empt such a strategy, the ACLU is supporting state legislation that would prohibit such cooperation, and locally, persuading jurisdictions not to allow it, either. With respect to Muslim communities, things are more nebulous — although Trump’s threat to force Muslim-Americans to register is categorically a non-starter.

“If there is a registry, we will sue in court immediately,” Sun says. “That will absolutely be a violation of the 1st, 4th, and 5th amendments. Something that I think might be more insidious is surveillance of mosques and Muslim communities and people who are perceived as Muslim. That’s a much harder problem to expose, because it’s not done necessarily in the open.”

In other words, covert surveillance is tougher to fight than a legislative agenda, although the ACLU has had success exposing local law enforcement’s purchases of drones or Stingrays, which mimic cell phone towers and indiscriminately hoover up Americans’ metadata. Freedom of Information Act requests also reveal clandestine expansions of government snooping. Even though liberals may have respected President Obama and trusted his judgment as a constitutional lawyer, Sun is clear on point point: The domestic surveillance state exists.

“The question is how is it going to be used under the Trump Administration,” she says. “We expect [it] will just grow.”

But the ACLU is not solely in a defensive crouch. Criminal justice reform is the best area to go on the offensive, Sun says, and Californians have a diminished appetite for 1990s-style, three-strikes laws.

“We’re working hard to end the money bail system, and to end the use of driver’s license suspensions as a debt collection tool for tickets, which is a huge economic justice issue,” she says.

Fighting the Trump Administration is not without risks. The possibility of losing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding might erode progressive unity in California, but Sun is optimistic.

“That may change the landscape in some ways, but we’ve certainly been heartened by the forceful voices in the legislature,” she says.

Still, it’s hard to know what Trump really thinks, as he’s taken every position on every issue. Sun isn’t particularly willing to indulge him — particularly in light of the possibility of a hardcore racist attorney general, one Jefferson Beauregard Sessions.

“I think we have to campaign promises seriously,” she says. However unpredictable Donald Trump might be, “the folks that he’s putting in power are very predictable, in terms of what their views are. I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think the these campaign promises are not going to come to fruition because Donald Trump has a short attention span.”

So the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California will fight.

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