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 herewhich I didn’t discover until months 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 communitieswhere there’s an organized constituencyto 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 cil meeting saying that, according to this statute that we have here, the report was due to you March 3rdis 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 continued on page 26 “There is a joy in trying to achieve what is unachievable that is infectious when you are around Will,” says national ACLU Director Anthony Romero. 12 THE TEXAS OBSERVER APRIL 15, 2005
You May Also Like
The documentary in Falfurrias is sinister and spiritual.