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American Civil Liberties Union


Alabama’s Effort to Suppress Black Vote Couldn’t Prevent Huge Turnout

Thu, 14 Dec 2017 14:45 -0500

Decades trying to stop African Americans from voting backfired, but Alabama needs to improve access to the ballot. Some 1.3 million Alabamians – more than twice as many who voted in the primary – turned out to vote in Tuesday’s special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The turnout was extraordinary because it took place in a state that has a well-documented history of trying to suppress the vote of the very group that helped propel Doug Jones to victory. Alabama has a long record of suppressing the African-American vote. In the Jim Crow era, state authorities made it impossible for many Blacks to vote by requiring a literacy test. Courts long ago deemed literacy tests discriminatory and illegal, but today we still see barriers in Alabama that make it harder for people of color to cast a ballot. There is no question that those efforts work. The ACLU of Alabama set up a hotline to report difficulties in voting on Election Day, and received complaints all day. But those efforts were not enough. According to exit polling, 30 percent of those who voted in Tuesday’s race were African American, and 96 percent of them voted for Jones. One of the most obvious ways officials have attempted to suppress the African American vote is by imposing a requirement that voters have one of a limited set of forms of photo ID, while, at the same time, making it more difficult to obtain photo ID by closing 31 driver’s license offices in counties — including every county in which African Americans are 70 percent or more of the population. State officials denied that these closures caused a “disparate and adverse effect based on race,” as a federal investigation determined. The state was ordered to reopen the offices, but many of the offices were reopened on a very limited schedule. For example, a person in Sumter County, which is majority African American, can only visit the driver’s license office on the second and fourth Tuesday of the month from 8-12pm or 12:30-2:30pm to get a driver’s license or non-driver ID. If they arrive without the proper paperwork to get the identification, they must wait an entire month before trying again. On Election Day, one man from Mobile called the ACLU hotline saying that he was probihited from voting because the address on his driver’s license did not match the address where he was registered. He went home and got his passport, but was told he couldn’t use that either. He was eventually able to vote, but after the ACLU intervened to help him. In addition to restrictive voter ID laws, Alabama authorities refuse to provide voter education. When any measure is taken to expand voting rights, state officials refuse to provide any voter education to spread the word. Last year, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill was quoted in a documentary about voting rights, saying, “As long as I’m Secretary of State of Alabama, you’re going to have to show some initiative to become a registered voter in this state.” A few months ago, after a new law passed allowing for certain Alabama individuals with felony convictions to be able to regain their voting rights, Merrill claimed it was not his responsibility to notify those voters that they are eligible to vote again. Another law passed last year made crossover voting illegal, meaning that someone voting in one party’s primary could face fines and jail time if they voted in the other party’s primary run-off. Following the Republican primary run-off between front runners Roy Moore and Luther Strange, Merrill said that 674 people who voted in the run-off had also voted in the Democratic primary and recommended that they be prosecuted. Eventually, Merill found that the number was the result of an administrative error, but his recommendation that crossover voters be prosecuted led many to believe that voting incorrectly or against your party could lead to jail time. After he was asked to clarify that the crossover voting law does not apply to the general election, he said, "That doesn’t confuse me[...]

New Mexico Sheriff’s Office Pulls Over the Same Black Federal Agent — Three Times in a Month

Wed, 13 Dec 2017 17:30 -0500

The ACLU of New Mexico sues the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office for the racial profiling of an ICE agent.

By the third time Sherese Crawford got pulled over, she knew it was no matter of coincidence.

Crawford is a 38-year-old African-American Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent recently on temporary assignment in Albuquerque, New Mexico. As part of her work, she was regularly required to rent a car and drive a lonely stretch of I-40 to travel between the ICE field office in Albuquerque and Milan, New Mexico. Over the course of less than a month, she was pulled over three times by the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office — twice by the same deputy.

In none of these stops was she given a warning or citation. Her only crime: driving while black.

The first of the three incidents occurred on April 5, when Deputy Leonard Armijo pulled Crawford over, claiming that he had searched a database for her license plate number and the license plate came back as not on file, indicating that the vehicle might be stolen. This is a highly unlikely claim given that Crawford was driving a rental car provided by ICE.

When Crawford asked him in utter confusion, “What did I do?” Deputy Armijo forced her to exit the vehicle and walk with him to his patrol unit, where he scolded her for “giving him an attitude.” After this incident, Ms. Crawford contacted an ICE supervisor in Albuquerque to complain about the pretextual traffic stop, and the ICE supervisor advised her that the sheriff’s deputy had likely stopped her because she fit a profile: an African-American in a rental car.

That profile got her stopped two more times on April 15 and May 3 by Bernalillo County Deputy Patrick Rael. In the April 15 stop, Deputy Rael pulled her over for allegedly tailgating. When he examined Crawford’s license, he recognized her name and asked her if they had pulled her over the week before. He said he remembered Crawford’s name because an ICE officer and sheriff’s deputy present at the first stop had said that she had an “attitude.” Two weeks later, Deputy Rael pulled over Crawford for a third time alleging she was driving “too slow.”

These three incidents taken together clearly show that the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office has an unconstitutional policy of racially profiling African-Americans. For context, white and Hispanic ACLU of New Mexico staff have been driving the same stretch of road in rental cars for years without incident. It is impossible to imagine that these three stops in close succession with no warning or citation were motivated by anything other than Crawford’s race, especially given that Bernalillo County is overwhelmingly white and Hispanic with only three percent of the population reporting as Black or African-American.

Last week, the ACLU of New Mexico filed a lawsuit against the sheriff’s office alleging that they unlawfully and repeatedly stopped Crawford, a veteran federal law enforcement agent, because of her race. Targeting people because of the color of their skin isn’t just unconstitutional and wrong, it’s bad policing. This kind of biased-based policing destroys public trust in law enforcement and divides communities, making it harder for officers to do their jobs.

As one of the most diverse and multicultural states in the country, racial discrimination has no place in New Mexico, especially not in one of our state’s largest law enforcement agencies. We’re fighting to ensure that anytime you see flashing lights behind you in our state, you can feel confident that it was your lead foot — not the color of your skin — that’s getting you pulled over.

Ferguson’s School Board Elections Dilute the African-American Vote

Wed, 13 Dec 2017 10:30 -0500

Ferguson’s ‘at large’ electoral system continues to violate the Voting Rights Act. The Ferguson-Florissant School District was born out of a 1975 federal desegregation order, intended to remedy effects of historical discrimination against African-American students. Yet, as recently as 2014, the school board was all white, and its members had not had a racial make-up that reflects the district’s population in the 12 years prior. Slightly less than half of the voting-age residents of the district are African-American, as are roughly 80 percent of the students who attend the public schools. While some African-American candidates have been elected to the school board in the last few years, recent victories do not erase the district's long history of racial exclusion and inequality. The decades-long representational disparities stem from the at-large voting system used to elect school board members, which systematically disadvantages African-Americans from electing candidates of their choice by diluting the power of their vote. In 2014, the ACLU sued and, two years later, took the school district to court in a six-day trial, where a federal judge ultimately found that the at-large electoral system “essentially blocked African American voters from exercising effective political power in the District.” Judge Sippel then ordered the school district to change the electoral system to remedy the Voting Rights Act violation. Instead, the school district appealed the court’s ruling. Now, we are back in court before the Eighth Circuit to ensure that the school district does not continue to use an electoral process that results in discrimination on the basis of race. Here’s how the school district’s at-large voting system works: Each of the seven school board seats is elected by the entire district, otherwise known as an “at large” system. Voting in Ferguson is highly polarized along racial lines — African-American voters and white voters tend to prefer different candidates in each election. Because African-Americans comprise 48 percent of the voting age population in the district, it is difficult for them to elect a candidate of their choice in an at-large system, where the entire district weighs in for each seat. Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act prohibits the application or imposition of any “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting or standard, practice, or procedure” that “results in denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” The VRA also prohibits vote dilution, which is the use of an electoral scheme — such as Ferguson-Florissant’s at-large method — that weakens the voting strength of minority voters and consequently denies those voters an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. This had led to years of underrepresentation for African-American residents of Ferguson in local government, and the consequences have been stark. The lower court found that “there is significant evidence that the African American community in FFSD has particularized needs concerning several issues, including unequal school resources and policies within FFSD, the disparate use of school discipline against African American schoolchildren, disparate educational opportunities for African American schoolchildren, and racial profiling by law enforcement.” In Ferguson, the lower court made the right call to begin correcting historical wrongs. We are asking the Eighth Circuit to affirm that ruling, requiring the school district to change its ways and institute an electoral system that truly protects the power of every vote. Discrimination once entrenched remains in place until it is systematically uprooted.[...]

New York City Takes on Algorithmic Discrimination

Tue, 12 Dec 2017 15:45 -0500

The city will create a task force to review its agencies’ use of algorithms and the policy issues they implicate. Invisible algorithms increasingly shape the world we live in, and not always for the better. Unfortunately, few mechanisms are in place to ensure they’re not causing more harm than good. That might finally be changing: A first-in-the-nation bill, passed yesterday in New York City, offers a way to help ensure the computer codes that governments use to make decisions are serving justice rather than inequality. Computer algorithms are a series of steps or instructions designed to perform a specific task or solve a particular problem. Algorithms inform decisions that affect many aspects of society. These days, they can determine which school a child can attend, whether a person will be offered credit from a bank, what products are advertised to consumer, and whether someone will receive an interview for a job. Government officials also use them to predict where crimes will take place, who is likely to commit a crime and whether someone should be allowed out of jail on bail. Algorithms are often presumed to be objective, infallible, and unbiased. In fact, they are highly vulnerable to human bias. And when algorithms are flawed, they can have serious consequences. Just recently, a highly controversial DNA testing technique used by New York City’s medical examiner put thousands of criminal cases in jeopardy. Flawed code can also further entrench systemic inequalities. The algorithms used in facial recognition technology, for example, have been shown to be less accurate on Black people, women, and juveniles, putting innocent people at risk of being labeled crime suspects. And a ProPublica study has found that tools designed to determine the likelihood of future criminal activity made incorrect predictions that were biased against Black people. These tools are used to make bail and sentencing decisions, replicating the racism in the criminal justice system under a guise of technological neutrality. But even when we know an algorithm is racist, it’s not so easy to understand why. That’s in part because algorithms are usually kept secret. In some cases, they are deemed proprietary by the companies that created them, who often fight tooth and nail to prevent the public from accessing the source code behind them. That secrecy makes it impossible to fix broken algorithms. The New York City Council yesterday passed legislation that we are hopeful will move us toward addressing these problems. New York City already uses algorithms to help with a broad range of tasks: deciding who stays in and who gets out of jail, teacher evaluations, firefighting, identifying serious pregnancy complications, and much more. The NYPD also previously used an algorithm-fueled software program developed by Palantir Technologies that takes arrest records, license-plate scans, and other data, and then graphs that data to supposedly help reveal connections between people and even crimes. The department since developed its own software to perform a similar task. The bill, which is expected to be signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, will provide a greater understanding of how the city’s agencies use algorithms to deliver services while increasing transparency around them. This bill is the first in the nation to acknowledge the need for transparency when governments use algorithms and to consider how to assess whether their use results in biased outcomes and how negative impacts can be remedied. The legislation will create a task force to review New York City agencies’ use of algorithms and the policy issues they implicate. The task force will be made up of experts on transparency, fairness, and staff from non-profits that work with people most likely to be harmed by flawed algorithms. It will develop a set of recommendations addressing when and how algorithms should be made public, how to assess whether they are biased, and the impact of such bias. These are ex[...]

ACLU Complaint Warns of Privacy Risks From Kobach’s Voter Data Scheme

Tue, 12 Dec 2017 15:00 -0500

The man at the helm of the White House’s voter suppression efforts has a terrible record that just keeps getting worse. The ACLU’s Voting Rights Project today amended our complaint in ACLU v. Donald Trump, our lawsuit against the White House’s voter suppression commission, led by Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. In addition to the ACLU’s existing transparency and fair balance claims, the amended complaint charges that the commission has acted arbitrarily and outside the scope of its legal authority. In making its unprecedented decision to aggregate the personal data of every registered voter in the United States, the commission failed to properly consider, for example, the cybersecurity and privacy implications of compiling this sensitive data. In addition, investigating records of individual voters goes well beyond the commission's mandate to study and make recommendations concerning registration and voting processes. Kobach’s record on this matter is extremely troubling. His prized voter monitoring system, Crosscheck, which stores millions of voter files and is ostensibly meant to stop people from voting in more than one state, has serious defects. It not only produces erroneous findings, but it is also open to massive security risks. Gizmodo found that “the records passing through the Crosscheck system have been stored on a server in Arkansas operating on a network rife with security flaws” and that “multiple sets of login credentials” have been compromised. ProPublica similarly discovered that security vulnerabilities, like hosting files on an insecure server and sharing login credentials over email, “could imperil the safety of millions of peoples’ records.” And security analysts warned in a recent court brief that Kobach’s plan to collect millions of files containing voters’ personal information “would constitute a treasure trove for malicious actors.” The Kansas Secretary of State’s problems don’t end there: His commission is so troubled that it is even facing a lawsuit from one of its own members. The suit filed last month by Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, a Democrat, claims that the panel’s “superficial bipartisanship has been a façade.” The complaint, reports Politico, also alleges that “Secretary Dunlap and the other Democratic commissioners have been excluded from the Commission’s work” and “deprived access to documents prepared by and viewed by other commissioners.” Such partisanship and secrecy put the commission in violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires that federal commissions be transparent to the public and fairly balanced. Kobach could face further legal trouble due to his role as a paid writer for Breitbart News. According to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Kobach may have broken conflict of interest law by writing a (wildly inaccurate) paid article on voter fraud for Breitbart, which he then used for his commission’s work. The commission, nonetheless, is still pushing the voter fraud myth. One member, J. Christian Adams, recently sent a letter demanding that the Department of Justice pursue more voter fraud cases. This is not surprising, for years Adams has sent letters to local officials demanding that they purge their voter rolls in order to combat the problem of rampant voter fraud, with Mother Jones finding that he was “targeting” areas with large minority and Democratic populations. Back in Kansas, Kobach has faced criticism from disability rights advocates, who have highlighted the harmful impact of his restrictive voting policies. In one local election, 23 people with disabilities had their mail-in ballots tossed over questions about their signature. Rocky Nichols of the Disability Rights Center of Kansas told Newsweek that the new signature requirements are “a problem for people with disabilities” who “don’t have the same ability[...]

‘You’re Fucked’: The Acquittal of Officer Brailsford and the Crisis of Police Impunity

Tue, 12 Dec 2017 14:45 -0500

The execution of Daniel Shaver demonstrates the importance of police training. Two words stick in my mind when I think of the video of Daniel Shaver begging for his life before he was shot and killed by Officer Philip Brailsford of the Police Department in Mesa, Arizona. The two words were written on the dust cover of the AR-15 rifle Braisford used to kill Shaver: “You’re fucked.” We have seen this movie before. Daniel Shaver was not armed or committing any crime when was he shot to death by Brailsford. Like many previous police shooting videos, this one shows police behaving much more aggressively than Mr. Shaver. And like previous videos, a jury acquitted the officer of all criminal charges. But this video showed us two things about policing culture in America that stand out. First, the video shows Shaver begging for his life while he tried to follow contradictory instructions screamed at him by an officer. And Shaver was white. Shaver had a job killing pests. Sometimes he used a pellet gun to get the job done, and he was seen holding the gun by people at the hotel. When the police were called, they were told a man had a gun so they had to be careful.I get it. But how far does that information take us?At trial, the officer emphasized the danger of a potentially armed person and claimed that what he did was consistent with his training. But if that ends the inquiry, it will be almost impossible to convict a police officer of a crime for shooting anyone. There is an argument that this is already the reality in America. In the 12 years between 2005 and April 2017, only 80 officers have been arrested on murder or manslaughter charges for on-duty shootings, according to work by Philip Stinson, an associate professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. The Washington Post reported that between 2015 and 2017 police shot and killed 2,884 people. Police shoot and kill numerous people every year and are hardly ever held accountable. Shaver and a companion had been ordered out of a hotel room and told to get on the floor. The video shows him being neither hostile nor resistant. On the video you can hear one of the officers screaming, “If you make a mistake, another mistake, there is a very severe possibility you’re both going to get shot … if you move, we are going to consider that a threat, and we are going to deal with it, and you may not survive it.” The police are screaming that the cost of a mistake is death — what kind of training teaches that as a proper way to deal with people? Do you think an innocent person might get nervous if an AR-15 was pointed at him while the police officer was screaming commands, including, “Make a mistake and I will kill you?” Would you get nervous? Not only was the officer shouting in a very hostile voice, the orders were contradictory. “Do not put your hands down for any reason,” he tells Shaver. “Your hands go back in the small of your back or down, we are going to shoot you, do you understand me?” Shaver, who is now in tears, says, “Yes, sir.” But immediately after, the commands change, “Crawl towards me,” and Mr. Shaver lowers his hands to the floor and begins moving toward the officers. A few seconds after beginning to crawl, Mr. Shaver seems to twist slightly to his right, and as he does so someone shouts, “Don’t!” Officer Brailsford begins firing the first of five shots. As predicted by the other officer, Shaver did not survive. There is no training that justifies the behavior seen on the video. Screaming at a person that is crying cannot be a legitimate technique for officer training. And if Shaver did something threatening, why was Brailsford the only officer who fired his weapon, not just once or twice, but five times? And Daniel Shaver was white. Deliberate or unconscious racial bias played no role. Black or brown skin was not a proxy for a threat. This video demonstrates how f[...]

Tough-on-Crime Prosecutors Are Out of Step With Public Views

Tue, 12 Dec 2017 11:30 -0500

The ACLU polled likely voters and found strong support for prosecutors committed to criminal justice reform. “Mass incarceration is a myth.” Racial bias in the criminal justice system “is the most ludicrous concept ever.” Data on sexual assault prosecutions should be kept secret because it might be “misinterpreted by the public.” These are all real quotes from elected prosecutors, the most powerful people in the criminal justice system. There are approximately 2,400 elected prosecutors in America, and these views may well be common among them. But the public appears to be moving away from these misconceptions. A first-of-its-kind poll conducted by the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice shows that voters of every persuasion across the United States — in red states and in blue states alike — strongly prefer elected prosecutors who are committed to reducing incarceration, tackling racial disparities, and being transparent. Approximately nine out of 10 likely voters surveyed said that it was important for their prosecutor to prioritize alternatives to incarceration. This includes 83 percent of Republicans polled. Eighty-eight percent of voters also said they were more likely to support a prosecutor who actively works to reduce racial bias in the criminal justice system. And 91 percent want prosecutors to reduce sentences in instances where people were treated unequally because of their race. Respondents also want a prosecutor who makes a commitment to transparency, with 85 percent favoring a prosecutor who shares data and policies with the public. The poll also reveals one major reason why “tough on crime” prosecutors get returned to office even though their extreme beliefs are significantly out of step with the majority of constituents: Many voters simply know too little about who their local prosecutor is or what they are up to. Once armed with that information, three-quarters of voters say their prosecutor is “very important” and that they would vote for a candidate committed to reform. To bridge the gap between voters’ values and the pro-incarceration practices of many elected prosecutors, the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice and state ACLU affiliates have joined other partners in a nationwide public education effort. There are over 1,000 top prosecutors up for election in 2018 alone. The ACLU is knocking on doors, issuing reports, holding public events, and spreading awareness online about prosecutors in California, Kansas, Oregon, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Texas, and many more states to come. This nationwide poll sends a strong signal to the growing number of recently elected reform-minded prosecutors that voters are going to continue to support them if they follow through on an aggressive agenda to address mass incarceration and racial disparities. These results should also encourage many more reform-minded candidates to enter prosecutor elections, which are uncontested at notoriously high rates, and challenge the status quo. These poll results promise that, with a lot of hard work, in the future a person who embraces discredited “tough on crime” policies and denies that racism permeates the criminal justice system will no longer be able to get a job as a top prosecutor, except perhaps through a presidential appointment.[...]

We Can’t End Mass Incarceration Without Ending Money Bail

Mon, 11 Dec 2017 16:30 -0500

Wealth should never decide a person’s freedom. Whether or not you are in jail should not depend on your ability to pay for your freedom. Yet that’s the way our current money bail system works. It is one of the most corrupt and broken parts of our justice system.Close to half a million people are in jail today awaiting trial, many of them incarcerated because they are too poor to afford cash bail. The time has come to abolish this system. The ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice is launching a nationwide campaign today to end this injustice of wealth-based incarceration, deploying all of our tools from our nationwide state affiliate structure to our strategic litigation, communication, and legislative advocacy to support bail reform movements and our partners in states across the country. The original purpose of bail was to serve as an incentive to return to court when a person is arrested, released, and their case proceeds. However, the current money bail system has little to do with this original intent. Rather it has mutated into a way to separate people who have money from those who don’t. People with money can almost always buy their way to freedom, regardless of the charges against them. Yet people without access to cash too often end up in jail simply because they cannot afford bail, or alternatively they must take out loans from bail companies that charge exorbitant fees. Even though you are presumed innocent in the eyes of the law, if you can’t afford cash bail, you will end up in jail for weeks, months, or, in some cases, years as you wait for your day in court. This wealth-based incarceration disproportionately punishes and targets Black people and other people of color as well as people from economically disadvantaged communities. Those trapped by this system often lose their families, jobs, and homes as they are denied justice while waiting for their case to move through the system. They’re also more likely to be convicted of the crime they were charged with. One study showed that the non-felony conviction rate jumps from 50 percent to 92 percent for those jailed pretrial. For felony cases, the rate jumps from 59 percent to 85 percent. Whether you are detained before trial can very well predict whether you are eventually convicted, as people become desperate to leave jail and agree to plea deals. Prosecutors know how to work this system and take advantage of these desperate situations. But prosecutors aren’t the only ones who benefit from this system. Multinational insurance corporations and for-profit bail bond companies make billions in profits, all on the backs of low-income people and disadvantaged communities. That’s because if you want to get out of jail and you cannot afford it, then you have to turn to one of these companies to secure your freedom. According to a recent report by Color of Change and the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice, fewer than 10 companies are responsible for a significant majority of the $14 billion in bonds posted by for-profit bail each year. The industry collects around $2 billion a year in profits. These companies require an upfront, nonrefundable fee—usually 10 percent—to pay for your bail. Yet often times families cannot afford this fee and end up paying through installment plans with high interest rates, trapping them in years of debt. So individuals with enough money to pay their entire bail upfront generally receive all of their money back when their case is resolved, but if a for-profit bondsman bailed you out — even if you never miss a day in court and are found not guilty — you and your family are still financially beholden, many times for years paying them back. This is happening throughout the country. In Maryland, for example, the state’s Office of the Public Defender found that over a five-year period, “more than $75 million in bail bond premiums were char[...]

Hurricane Maria Exposed the U.S.’s Long Neglect of Puerto Rico

Mon, 11 Dec 2017 09:00 -0500

The head of the ACLU of Puerto Rico describes what life is like after the failed federal response to Hurricane Maria. The United Nations’ poverty expert will visit Puerto Rico today to survey the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and the structural issues it unveiled. The storm exposed the brutal and historic neglect of the island and its 3.5 million U.S. citizens. The ACLU and other organizations advocated for the U.N. to visit the island and submitted a letter urging them to do so back in early October. The U.N. poverty expert will meet with communities, local groups, and government officials on the ground in Puerto Rico. He will report back his findings to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. While Puerto Rico “belongs to but is not part of” the world’s richest country, its poverty rate is almost double of Mississippi’s, the U.S.’s poorest state. Fifty-eight percent of the island’s children live in poverty. The unemployment rate is 10.1 percent, twice as high as the U.S. and more than any other state, and has continued to grow after the devastation. Since 2008, over 34,000 homes have been foreclosed on, and a record-breaking 5,424 families lost their homes in 2016. Puerto Rico’s legal status is complicated, and it helps exacerbate circumstances that lead to poverty and civil rights issues. And these have only worsened since the hurricane. Since the Supreme Court in the Insular Cases determined that Congress owns Puerto Rico, the U.S. can rule over Americans living on the island without granting them the full constitutional rights enjoyed by those living in the states. This affects health care programs like Medicaid and Medicare, fair access to government resources that help vulnerable communities, and many other issues. How and when Puerto Rico recovers from Hurricane Maria is important for these 3.5 million U.S. citizens’ civil and human rights. Without adequate assistance and support from the United States, the country that “owns” them, these American citizens won’t be able to fight to fully participate in our democracy. In an effort to understand the importance of the U.N.’s visit and get a sense of what post-Maria life is like on the island, I interviewed William Ramirez, the executive director of the ACLU of Puerto Rico. This interview has been condensed and edited. Why is the United Nations’ poverty expert visiting Puerto Rico? Puerto Rico is generally invisible to the world. Most of the time it feels like we don’t exist in the collective consciousness. We’re not a part of the United States, and we’re not our own country. That puts us in a difficult position. You can see that in how the federal government and the Trump administration have responded to us after Hurricane Maria. We got such a cold response because we are not seen as part of the states even though we are U.S. citizens. Being recognized by the U.N. for this visit is key to keeping up the public and media attention we need to bring forward action to help us recover as soon as possible. We’re going into 4 months now. There are many people that are sick and have died unnecessarily because of post-hurricane conditions. I’m hopeful that the visit will highlight and put into perspective the fact that what Hurricane Maria really did was unveil the extreme poverty that has been growing in Puerto Rico due, in part, to austerity measures imposed by an unelected fiscal control board and as a consequence of unequal treatment and attention from the federal government and Congress. What is life like in Puerto Rico right now? There’s a lot of sadness and trauma right now. Everyone has to get used to a new normal. Days are for preparing for the night, and nights are longer. You can make a list of all the things you want to do, but then there’s a massive power outage that will disrupt your plans. Every da[...]

ACLU Files Second Lawsuit Challenging Laws Suppressing Boycotts of Israel

Fri, 08 Dec 2017 15:45 -0500

An Arizona lawyer is challenging a law requiring him to promise not to boycott Israel if he wants to keep his state contract. The ACLU on Thursday filed a challenge to an Arizona law that requires contractors doing business with the state to promise they won’t boycott Israel. This is the second such lawsuit the ACLU has filed in response to a wave of laws across the country designed to suppress constitutionally protected boycotts of Israel. Thursday’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of Mikkel Jordahl, an attorney who has contracted with the state for the last 12 years to provide legal services on behalf of incarcerated individuals in Coconino County Jail. Jordahl opposes Israel’s settlement expansion in Palestinian territories and what he considers Israel’s unwillingness to ensure the rights of Palestinians under its rule. As a supporter of boycott campaigns targeting Israel, he refuses to purchase goods and services offered by companies operating in Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. He wants to extend the boycott to his one-person law firm, Mikkel (Mik) Jordahl P.C., and to provide legal support to other boycott activists. However, the Arizona law, passed in August 2016, forbids state contractors from engaging in those activities. It directly violates the First Amendment right to political expression, which prohibits the government from compelling political speech as a condition of receiving a benefit, restricting the speech of its contractors, and discriminating against dissenting viewpoints. The Supreme Court affirmed the right to engage in a political boycott in a 1982 decision holding that a 1960s-era boycott of white-owned businesses in Mississippi was protected by the First Amendment. In October, the ACLU filed a challenge to a similar law in Kansas. That lawsuit was filed on behalf of Esther Koontz, an educator who was contracted by the state to train math teachers and who boycotts Israeli products in response to a resolution passed by her Mennonite church. She refused to sign a contract committing to refrain from boycotting Israel and, as a result, cannot participate in the teacher training program. Similar contract requirements are on the books in Georgia, Arkansas, Minnesota, Texas, Ohio, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada, South Carolina, Rhode Island, Florida, Maryland, and Wisconsin. A number of laws in other states take aim at Israel boycotts in other ways, and a congressional bill penalizing certain boycotts of Israel has been introduced in Congress. While these laws and provisions differ in some aspects, they all share the unconstitutional goal of squelching legitimate protest activity surrounding a matter of major global significance. A Kansas court heard arguments on the Koontz case last week, rightfully noting that the state hadn’t even attempted to defend the constitutionality of the state’s anti-boycott law. We wait to see whether Arizona will try to muster any kind of defense. [...]