If it weren’t for organizations like the ACLU of Wisconsin, we citizens of the United States likely would be victims of far more attempts to subvert or even destroy the unalienable rights guaranteed to each of us by the US Constitution. Entities who want to advance their own agendas – whether corporations, politicians or governmental agencies – at the expense of individuals’ rights get nervous when they know the ACLU is involved.
While most of us are familiar with the ACLU by name, many of us aren’t aware of the extent to which the organization works proactively, in addition to reactively. Their programs educate citizens about rights and liberties, and they actively advocate for changes in the law that will have a universal, positive impact.
Often, in cases where the ACLU is reacting to rights violations, the fight takes place on relatively obscure, out-of-the-way battlefields. However, in recent weeks, the ACLU of Wisconsin has been front and center on two major causes: voter ID and same-sex marriage.
On voter ID, the ACLU of Wisconsin appealed to the US Supreme Court, asking the Court to prevent Wisconsin’s voter ID law from being implemented in time for the November election. The Supreme Court decided on October 9 not to hear the case at this time, thus, kept the State from imposing the voter ID law in November.
Regarding same-sex marriage, on October 6 the Supreme Court rejected appeals from Wisconsin and four other states seeking to preserve their bans on same-sex marriage. That means same-sex marriages in Wisconsin now are legal. The ACLU previously had sued in Wisconsin on behalf of eight couples to overturn the ban on same-sex marriage here.
Voter ID Still Needs Attention
The voter ID battle is far from over. The ACLU of Wisconsin has 90 days from the US Supreme Court’s October 9 decision not to hear the case, to once again ask the Court to take it up.
Molly Collins, associate director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, says, “We’re very happy about the Supreme Court decision, but no one has ruled on the merits yet. Everyone needs to still be thoughtful about that.” She notes that Wisconsin’s voter ID law, if ultimately put into effect, could disenfranchise as many as 300,000 registered voters who don’t have access to IDs. That’s according to a previous legal decision from federal Judge Lynn Adelman in the ongoing court case.
“It’s completely unacceptable to solve a problem that doesn’t exist,” Collins says, referring to claims by the voter ID law backers of significant voter fraud in Wisconsin.
These two court cases – voter ID and same-sex marriage – have brought needed attention to the ACLU’s ongoing work to protect, promote and defend our civil liberties and civil rights. But, according to Emilio De Torre, the ACLU of Wisconsin’s youth and programs director, we citizens need to do much more to educate ourselves about those rights that the ACLU so passionately defends.
What Are Our Rights?
“People don’t know what their rights are,” De Torre says. “The ACLU is like a referee, making sure that systems and government aren’t cheating the players, even if the players aren’t aware of what’s happening.”
We are the players in this, yes, but it’s not a game, especially when the abuse of our civil rights involves astronomically high incarceration rates for black males in Wisconsin, entrenched housing and workplace segregation, and physical abuse, even occasional death, at the hands of our police force.
The movie Guardians of the Galaxy, which came out this summer, likely appeals to our younger neighbors who weren’t around when the ACLU played an integral role in battles fought nationwide over such issues as: teaching evolution in the schools (the Scopes Trial of 1925); segregation in the schools, which resulted in the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision by the US Supreme Court in 1954; and Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision in 1973 that assured all women in the US the right to choose to have an abortion.
But De Torre, in his role as youth and programs director for the ACLU, is striving to get young people to realize they have the same rights as adults in our society. How great if our youth realized just how much the ACLU does to be a guardian of our galaxy here on earth when it comes to our rights, liberties and quality of life.
De Torre recently submitted a proposal, through the ACLU of Wisconsin, as part of the Greater Together Challenge. That challenge, for ideas to dismantle segregation in Milwaukee, came from the Greater Together Coalition.
“JUXTAPOSE,” De Torre’s idea, won second place in the challenge. The program will go forward regardless of the funding source (the first place winner in the challenge was awarded $5,000 in seed money). “JUXTAPOSE” will create intergenerational workshops to engage Milwaukee’s youth, adults and elders through photography, spoken word and printmaking projects, according to De Torre, “as a way to unite the people across imagined and real boundaries and dismantle segregation.”
Education: Key for Equality
Collins agrees with De Torre that it’s important to make sure people are aware of their rights, across all areas of our lives and in every generation. Education, advocacy and promotion have become more important than ever when it comes to the role the ACLU plays in guarding our liberties.
In addition to the voter ID and same-sex marriage legal cases, issues of reproductive rights, transit equity and environmental justice, among others, recently have been hot topics for action by the ACLU.
De Torre points to the number of commissions in Milwaukee’s city government, including the Fire & Police Commission, as one area about which many citizens lack awareness.
“People need to know about how they [the commissions] work, and take advantage of the opportunities to make their opinions known,” De Torre says.
“It’s one thing to complain and feel like victims,” De Torre says, “and another to speak your piece. People are seeing how these policies impact them on a daily basis.”
Collins points out that greater public awareness of the workings of government, especially the commissions such as the Fire & Police Commission, “sets a level of expectation for conduct of the Milwaukee Police Department that the public should be weighing in on.”
We Have Power to Bring Change
Riverwest residents should remember the Occupy movement that included protestors camping out in Riverwest in 2012. The folks on-site with bright yellow vests indicating “Legal Observer” were trained volunteers. Their training was done by the ACLU of Wisconsin.
“The legal observer role is a dynamic way for folks to get their hands wet in democracy,” De Torre says.
Collins adds, “One of the reasons the MPD does, for the most part, a great job with demonstrators is we’re there watching them.”
Collins, De Torre and the ACLU of Wisconsin as a whole are focused, in part, on their ability and responsibility to fight for the rights of all Wisconsin citizens. But De Torre especially adds that individuals have a lot of power in their own hands to effect change as well.
“It’s a huge, insidious recipe,” De Torre says, referring to racial segregation in Milwaukee. “Generally, people are tired of it. We have a part to play in the solution, no matter how small. We can be agents of change. However little it is, we need to do it.”
De Torre encourages Riverwest Currents readers to reach out to the ACLU of Wisconsin if they feel a need for education, advocacy or enlightenment on any issues regarding civil rights and liberties, either individually or as part of a group.
“All we need is a cup of coffee and we’re there,” De Torre says. “You need to know your rights.”
Check out the ACLU’s list of available resources on their website, aclu-wi.org/resources.