Spokesmodel Makes Good

The Observer talks with ACLU Executive Director Will Harrell


When I first met Will Harrell in 1993 he had just moved to Guatemala City and taken up residence in a place we affectionately called, “the Human Rights Ghetto,” so named for the concentration of foreign lawyers, activists, and aid workers who lived there. Will spent much of his four years in Guatemala charging the government with the torture and murder of its citizens before international human rights courts. Such prosecutions were too dangerous for Guatemalan attorneys to try within the country at the time. The verdict of international courts had significance since the Guatemalan government depended on the largesse of foreign aid. And the work made a difference. Several high-level officials were eventually indicted in one case and in another an execution was temporarily halted. Will was singled out as a troublemaker in the official press—one editorial took particular offense at his long hair and earring—and he was even indicted briefly in one rural town for incitement of sedition.

I was living and working as a journalist in Guatemala at the time and we quickly became friends. During the three years we overlapped there, I had the opportunity to travel with Will on visits to Mayan villages to take testimony about abuses by the army. Upon arrival, he would jump out of the truck and let fly a language of a dialect all his own. It seemed to be a mixture of Spanish, Guatemalan slang, English, and a dash or two of Cakchiquel. At first, the villagers who clustered around this man a good size larger than they, clearly didn’t know what to think. Outsiders most often mean trouble for indigenous cultures. Experience, particularly for the Maya, has made them wary. But the transformation to trust and laughter usually didn’t take more than a few minutes. It was easy to see that, far from making fun of them, Will was inviting them in to participate in something positive, an invitation delivered without a trace of guile. What good Will did and does, as I learned firsthand, comes from an innate, almost boy scout-like desire to see justice prevail, whether it involves a street corner domestic dispute turned violent or a labor leader thrown handcuffed from a helicopter.

Eventually, we both left Guatemala but kept in touch. Will bounced around professionally following a vision of social justice that he traces back to a boyhood of witnessing prejudice and inequality in Mississippi and Louisiana. He monitored elections in Bosnia and represented farm workers in Colorado before landing in New York City as the executive director of the National Police Accountability Project at the Center for Constitutional Rights. In 2000, Will called me at my office in Miami to ask for a recommendation letter for a job with the ACLU.

While I happily acquiesced, I wondered about this match between Will and Texas. He certainly wore his Texas past with pride, having gone to high school in Houston and college undergrad at the University of Texas at Austin. (Will was even an all-state linebacker for his high school football team.) His first law job was as a legal assistant for the Texas ACLU, when the organization was at one of its historic highpoints under Gara LaMarche and Jim Harrington. A return to Texas would also fulfill a promise to his mentor in law school that he bring the knowledge gained at American University in Washington, D.C., to the southland of his birth. Yet despite his desire and Texas bona fides, would the state and Will be too much alike? Both he and the Lone Star can seem immovable at times.

How much would he really accomplish with the Texas ACLU?

If Will had known then that the organization he was hired to run had been reduced— through internal divisions and lack of leadership—to little more than a phone message on an answering machine, he might not have taken the job, he admits today. At one point in the 1990s, the national ACLU placed the affiliate in receivership, essentially taking it over. Funders had also largely written off doing criminal justice work in Texas, according to Deborah Small, who heads a national Washington, D.C.-based grassroots organization focused on communities of color and the war on drugs called Break the Chains. “The conventional wisdom was that the state was too big, there were not enough activists, and it would take too much money to change,” she says.

Five years later, by any measure, Will’s tenure has been an extraordinary success. During the past two legislative sessions, the Texas ACLU has been one of the only public interest groups with consistent victories under GOP rule. The organization’s membership has doubled to more than 15,000. On criminal justice issues, Will has helped pull together an extraordinary coalition that crosses, at one point or another, nearly every line that divides us, be it racial or partisan. He has enlisted dozens of talented lawyers and activists—many of them quite strong willed—into an effective and cohesive machine, whose operating budget has more than tripled as foundations in New York, California, and Washington, D.C., have awakened to what some describe as “a Texas miracle.”

Will spent his first year as executive director traveling the state, meeting with anyone working on civil rights issues who would give him the time of day. As he says, “with a $200,000 budget, a staff of two, and a nasty office, I wasn’t going to make any progress at all on my own just with the ACLU.” He needed to build a coalition. The topic that would unite them became clear. “My whole training and experience has been principally criminal justice,” he says. “Those are the most pressing issues in Texas, so it was a perfect fit.”

In his first legislative session, the Texas ACLU helped pass racial profiling legislation that became an opportunity to organize the grassroots all over the state to keep track of the police. The legislative push caught police and prosecutor lobbyists—accustomed to a quiescent ACLU—by surprise. For Ronald DeLord, president of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, it was his first introduction to a person he describes as a “worthy adversary.” DeLord lauds Will for understanding “when to cut a deal” and for tapping into a libertarian strain within the Legislature. “He has everything you’d want to hate, a Yankee—I don’t know if he’s a Yankee, but he looks like one—lawyer with a ponytail, but you underestimate him at your peril,” says DeLord. “He has been effective in a state where he shouldn’t be effective.”

The Texas ACLU used the racial profiling data collection process authorized by the bill to educate and mobilize communities across the state through a series of innovative town hall meetings. Bringing it home is a philosophy also championed by the national ACLU executive director Anthony Romero, “The real work happens in local communities,” says Romero. “People experience injustice as a personal struggle, not abstractions.”

The Texas ACLU also helped push through a corroboration bill outlawing prosecutions based solely on the work of a confidential informant, which sprung out of the infamous Tulia case (first exposed by The Texas Observer). The Texas group strengthened indigent defense and made it easier to review the records of bad cops. In 2003, the ACLU began a push that continues today to restructure criminal sentencing in the state by creating alternatives to simply locking away nonviolent drug offenders into an already bulging prison system. (See “solutionsfortexas.info” for more on the campaign.)

Through it all, Will has kept his ponytail and his party-boy lifestyle even as he’s become a darling of the state media. He is a living example that progressives don’t have to walk around depressed all the time. “There is a joy in trying to achieve what is unachievable that is infectious when you are around Will,” notes the ACLU’s Romero.

His colleagues sometimes jokingly refer to him as their “spokesmodel,” in honor of a stint working as a male model in college. But his impact on the ACLU and Texas is now undeniable. Will has galvanized a movement that could well outlive his personal contributions.

The Texas Observer: What was the Texas ACLU like when you arrived in 2000?

Will Harrell: I remember I showed up to work the first day and it was a dreary, horrible, stanky office building. And I’d just left a phat gig in New York. I was hired to replace an [executive director installed] during the receivership. He was still [in the office], but he had been shifted over to be legal director. I can’t tell you how awkward it was to walk into the office and work the first day. He hadn’t still fully moved out of what was to be my office. I mean, awkward. Then I started looking at the budget, and thinking, “Oh my God… It’s only a $200,000 budget for the year, that’s IT.” Seventy-four hundred members in the whole state of TEXAS! Holy shit! What am I going to do? There was no real volunteer infrastructure other than renegade chapters doing their own thing, totally independent of any coordinated approach. There were serious financial issues—nothing corrupt or anything—but there were serious errors in financial reporting that had happened over the previous several years… Fortunately enough, board members who had been around a while felt a commitment, and now an obligation, to help me fix it.

TO: The organization had mainly been focused on church and state issues at the time? WH: And that’s what a lot of people joined the ACLU for, that’s what they feel comfortable with, that’s what they care about. A lot of people, when I got here and they saw the direction I was taking the organization [into] criminal justice [issues], were not happy about it…. We still have responded to those other issues, but there’s just not much proactive work you can do in the realm of church/state separation… A lot of people resigned from the board, resigned from chapters, sent in their membership card torn up. But you know what? I’m still here. I’ve got fifteen people on staff, twice as many members, and I’m feeling kind of good about our direction.

TO: Why is police accountability so important? Why is that an issue, particularly here in Texas, and why is it such a focus of what y’all do? WH: There’s a long history of police brutality and lack of accountability in the state of Texas. It’s almost to mythical proportions. Think about it: According to the Washington Post, the number one most violent police department is the Harris County Sheriff’s Department. Number two is the Houston Police Department. What does that say? We’ve got serious police accountability issues in Texas. But also there is a base of people ready to work and organize around that. Here’s a real problem where real people and real numbers are concerned. So let’s start with that.

TO: When you were doing your listening tour, that first year, most of the people you met with probably hadn’t heard much about the ACLU. WH: Either never heard, or had a very bad opinion of it. The ACLU had been dormant for so long. They were like, “Where have y’all been lately? Y’all are finally showin’ up?” Tulia is a perfect example of that. The case had been rejected by the ACLU before I got here—which I didn’t discover until months into it. (Laughs) It had been sent to both the Lubbock and Amarillo chapters, and they apparently sent it to the state office. But there’s no track of it. It doesn’t appear anywhere. My understanding was [they] thought you can’t win a case like that. Well, maybe not, but it’s worth a try. And we didn’t view it as simply a case, but as a case study, an incident that represented something much bigger than Tulia. All these systematic problems were lined up to create that story. The problems were what we were beginning to confront, not just what happened in Tulia.

TO: The Texas ACLU has become quite good at planning its legislative strategy with local organizing in mind. How have you done it? WH: We came to this thinking that politics is essentially a local matter. Even though the state legislators meet in Austin, they come from someplace else for the most part. We wanted to engage the base, which is their constituency, one way or another. At that time it was hard to get people to focus on the state legislature, because it seemed this distant, non-transparent entity, which just spits out laws every few years.

Most states passed racial profiling legislation requiring data collection but the reporting would be to some nameless, faceless statewide entity like the attorney general’s office or a legislative committee. So you’d end up with this 2,000-page report, which nobody ever saw or could understand or could really do anything with. So we designed ours to require that the reporting be local. By doing this, we’ve enabled the local communities—where there’s an organized constituency—to deal with it locally, to look at the numbers locally and to agitate for reform locally. That’s really what it’s going to take. So what if our racial profiling report sits in Austin, and some policy wonks look at it, and are disturbed about what it says? That doesn’t really matter locally. But if you get the local chapters of the ACLU and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the NAACP showing up at a city council meeting saying that, according to this statute that we have here, the report was due to you March 3rd—is there going to be a hearing on this? We’d like to have an open discussion on these numbers. And incidentally, when they’re going to ask you for a pay raise or more appropriations, we hope that you’ll link the issues and hinge future funding on improvement and a reduction of the disparities in stops and searches. And in some places it has happened. We have continuously educated local constituencies about what their police report says, how to contact their city council, how to go forward with this. We’ve had town hall meetings all over the state to discuss racial profiling and encouraged people to act locally.

TO: You’ve managed to put together a rather broad criminal justice coalition, together with LULAC and the NAACP. How is it that so many organizations are working together, for example, on sentencing? WH: A repressive regime like Texas forces people to set aside their differences and embrace what they hold in common. We’ve been able to educate each other on issues that aren’t related to criminal justice. You spend a lot of time together. You start to talk about things, and lo and behold, we find we agree on more than we ever thought we would. I think it’s also a genuine love between all these people that are engaged in working together. We love to work together. We’ve had great victories and we’ve had some losses. But I know that LULAC and NAACP, they’ve got my back and that makes me feel good about what I’m doing. There’s just a level of trust. And to me this is a natural thing, but I
uess it’s not
[to outsiders] because I’ve been speaking—I’ve gone to, like, five states now and talked about this very thing. It’s been hard for me to figure out what to say because it really just comes natural to us, the people who are involved here. Some of the main ingredients are that we are genuinely collective in every way and integrated in what we do. That means we don’t only decide what we’re going to do together, but we share resources, we share credit. And that is what distinguishes what we’re doing down here from a lot of other places. We go out of our way to give everybody credit not only because it empowers everybody involved, but because it demonstrates to our opposition that we are strong, large, and united. It’s not just the ACLU. It’s not just LULAC. Individually we don’t add up to much, but together we’re a significant force. And it’s the same way with the resources: We do collective, joint fundraising. We will come together and devise a plan for a campaign and fund that plan.

TO: What is it that you think you personally bring into coalition building that others might not? WH: I think it is not a pain in my ass to work and have all the meetings and make sure everyone is feeling good and on the same page. I like being with these people anyway. Maybe that’s what’s different. And I’m just committed to it. I’m not trying to build an empire. I’m trying to effect change. I think that comes through clear. To me, it’s not just about getting the ACLU logo out there on everything. Yes, I’ve got responsibilities to the organization. But I am here to effect change, and by that I mean that I’m equally committed to empowering and to building the NAACP, LULAC, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, all of the people that are engaged in the struggle. I’m committed to them as well.

TO: Is it your hope that efforts on sentencing reform will play out on the local level in a similar way to the racial profiling legislation? WH: We look at all these criminal justice issues as a continuum. We started with racial profiling because it’s the very beginning. The end is the over-incarceration in Texas. But it begins with the initial contact that law enforcement has with a civilian. So we started there. Then we worked on indigent defense. Now we’re looking at sentencing. Later we’ll deal with the judiciary, the courts. But this is a local issue because, number one, we can divert people as a matter of state statute but it requires local implementation. Prosecutors have to get on board. Defense attorneys have to get on board. Judges have to get on board

The groundswell of support is coming from local communities. We just concluded today our fifth lobby day. People from all over the state came. If you combine all [the three lobby days to date], over a thousand real people have come to Austin to lobby on these sentencing bills. These are people who’ve got family who are incarcerated, people who’ve been incarcerated themselves. They’re the ones who are in the best position to say what’s happening out there. State legislators for the most part aren’t clued in to what is happening in the communities, at least in this arena. So we’ve had to bring people in and put a face on the problem that we’re trying to articulate as a matter of policy.

TO: Clearly part of your secret to being one of the few progressive groups to get something out of the legislature in recent years has been an ability to work with Republicans. How have you managed to get past the stigma of the ACLU in that crowd and build those relationships? WH: It’s about mutual respect. I’m not going to agree with [Rep.] Terry Keel [R-Austin] on every issue. But where we do agree we’re going to work together and live to fight each other another day. And we do so with mutual respect. The same with [Rep.] Ray Allen [R-Grand Prairie], we’ll be butting heads one day over reproductive freedom issues and the like, but arm in arm the next. And we’ve just gotten to a place where that’s okay. We disagree, but I know that Ray Allen is genuine and it’s a matter of his faith that informs his position on reproductive freedom. I disagree and I’m going to sure as hell oppose him on that legislation, but I can’t disrespect somebody for standing up for what they believe in, even though it’s not something I believe in.

TO: People you work with have said that you tend to just assume that everybody wants to do right within their own worldview. And that’s part of the reason you’ve been successful, if not at converting people, at least at bringing them into the conversation. Do you agree with that? WH: You’ve got to be pretty bad for me to have a problem with you. [Former Dripping Springs Republican Rep.] Rick Green was a good example. He had never voted with the NAACP or the ACLU on anything, but I developed a relationship with him. I wasn’t critical about things. I would criticize him in a professional public way, but I wouldn’t be out there bashing his character or anything. I think he found that appealing and opened his mind to some of the other stuff we were doing. He decided he wasn’t going to oppose it just because it was coming from us. He said, “Okay they’re right and I agree with them, and I’m going to go with them even if I’m taking a risk with my constituents.”

TO: One of the other issues growing in importance in Texas is surveillance. And this ties into the bipartisan coalition. Can you talk a little about that? WH: There’s massive support for us on that. Sometimes it’s hard for the people who agree with us to feel comfortable that they’re agreeing with us but they agree with us. So that’s a process that we’ll translate into other areas where we can agree and begin to work together. But frankly, the whole surveillance thing, that’s all about the money—pork for vendors. That’s old-school pork and that’s really where we’re getting our opposition. But the principles of right or left are all with us on this, and we’ll win… We just basically stand for liberty. People have to be free to be themselves and not to be fearful of having every move watched, even when they’re not doing anything they have to be ashamed of. Behavior changes simply because people are under surveillance. Even the notion that they are is enough to dampen people’s freedom. That’s why this is a position that resonates across party lines.

TO: Has the national ACLU embraced what is happening here? WH: We really wouldn’t be where we are right now without their support. I’ve been in and out of the ACLU over the years. I’ve always had the impression that national kind of looked at state affiliates as sort of a problem child that can kind of get in the way of things. That’s not Anthony Romero’s perspective at all. He views it as the strength of the organization and has made incredible changes in the philosophy and thinking of the national office in terms of resource allocation. He’s out there fundraising for the affiliates, not just for his staff in New York and Washington, D.C. That’s a major shift and you can see the results all over the country. For the first time in the history of the ACLU, every state affiliate has an attorney. That’s never been the case. Historically, it’s been about half the affiliates that have an attorney.