Thursday, May 11, 2006

ACLU in a Utah state of mind

Back from Park City, UT where I was attending and presenting (on the subject of confidential informants) at the ACLU national staff conference. Utah is gorgeous, but 3.2 beer sucks - can you believe they actually make a 3.2 Guiness?! That's wrong on SO many levels.

I've worked with ACLU in Texas since about 2000, as a part-time staffer since 2003, but in many cases this was my first-ever chance to put faces to names at ACLU national and in other states. I met quite a few Grits readers there, too! Thanks to everybody who thought to mention it - I was flattered, to say the least, at the positive comments I got on the blog. Of course, that's a pretty sympathetic crowd.

ACLU is involved in so much amazing, important work it really boggles the mind, and little of it fits into the usual stereotypes: National legal director Steve Shapiro, discussing what's happening at the US Supreme Court this term, mentioned a case in which ACLU filed an amicus brief on behalf of a pro-life plaintiff suing to overturn federal campaign finance restrictions - you tell me, is that a liberal or conservative thing to do? (The question at hand is whether Congress can restrict non-profits from running issue advertising within 60 days before an election.)

The focus was a lot more on criminal justice and anti-discrimination work than all the "culture war" stuff you see hyped. Though there were strong contingents there working on issues like gay rights and abortion, Shapiro estimated that 2/3 of ACLU national's legal docket in some fashion involved racial-justice related topics. Our work in Texas and at the Drug Law Reform Project in Santa Cruz on snitches was highlighted in a couple of panels and at a special networking session, advertised by the depicted poster. DLRP director Graham Boyd declared his view that in a few years, public perception about confidential informants will change in much the same way as the topic of racial profiling at traffic stops did over the last decade with the campaign against DWB, or "Driving While Black." I think that's right, that this is the kind of wedge issue that can help change the way people think about criminal justice topics.

Another really important criminal justice situation highlighted was the "school to prison pipeline," i.e., the relationship between heightened use of draconian school discpline tactics, increased dropout rates, and who winds up in prison. That's a big focus of ACLU's national racial justice project. It's a huge subject: You hear a lot about racial disparities in prison, but education level is perhaps an even stronger determining factor than race in who winds up incarcerated.

Since I'd never been to one of these shindigs, though, this was mainly about networking and meeting folks for me and I was thrilled to spend time with some amazing folks. Everywhere you turned you met somebody slugging it out on some cutting edge issue. Overall it was a surprisingly young, diverse crowd filled with cool, groovy people, all doing exciting, important stuff.

After 9/11, IMO, ACLU overnight became the most important advocacy group in the country. O
n national security there's really no one else positioned to confront the key issues facing the country like torture, wiretapping and unfettered executive power. That's what you hear about ACLU in the news, that I suppose and the "War on Christmas." But I was excited to confirm firsthand through the amazing folks I spent time with this week that in every corner of the country the group's about a lot more than that. It made me proud to be a part of it.


Amerloc said...

Utah's not the ideal place to enjoy a cold beer. There are legal ways around the 3.2 thing, though: either locate one of the carefully-hidden and poorly -marked liquor stores and take the goods back to your room, or order from the restaurant waitstaff and pay twice - once for the beer and again for their opening it.

Anonymous said...

colorful, insightful, and just a tad bit revolutionary....just as I expect from a good neighbor ;)

it was fantastic to meet you, keep up the amazing work, and keep in touch.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks, Tory! Getting to know you and Katie was one of the best parts, for me, of the whole event. Y'all are both terrific, and Louisiana is lucky to have you. We need to put our heads together sometime and figure out how to make some mischief.

Renees Take said...

Hey Grits!! Three great blogs in a row! Utah was fabulous it was really fun meeting you finally after reading your blog for so long now. I really admire your work! 3.2 Guiness was enough of a crime, but 3.2 Murphy's Stout???

Keep up the good fight and I think it was you who said something abouta good story??? You certainly seem to have accomplished your goal!! Rae

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks a lot, Renee - I think we can agree that 3.2 Stout anytning is an abomination before the Almighty. Recipe: Take a regular beer; add a handful of melted snow.

Great to meet you and hang out in Utah - I had fun. Good luck on your DP vote in Wisconsin. See you next time.