Spokesmodel Makes Good The Observer interviews Will Harrell on his fifth anniversary running the Texas ACLU BY JAKE BERNSTEIN INhen 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 pressone editorial took particular offense at his long hair and earringand 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. Will Harrell, executive director of the Texas ACLU photo: Alan Pogue 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 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. 10 THE TEXAS OBSERVER APRIL 15, 2005
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