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  • Writer's pictureLoralyn Mears, PhD

Susan Herman, J.D., President of the ACLU, Highlights Constant Vigilance as the Price of Liberty

This article was originally published on July 2, 2020 at

Grit Daily News was a member of the media and one of more than 32,000 people who dialed in remotely for Collision From Home. The 2020 event was held virtually and featured a diverse group of attendees: about 45% of participants are female. Susan Herman, J.D., president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), was one of the outstanding speakers that we caught up with to learn about important topics like police reform.

Susan Herman, J.D., President ACU

Herman graduated with her Juris Doctor from New York University School of Law. As an expert on constitutional law, she has authored numerous books as well as contributed to arguments litigated in the Supreme Court. In 2008, she was elected President of the ACLU following years of activity in service to the organization as General Counsel and a member of both the Executive Committee and the National Board of Directors. Concurrently, she also holds the position of Centennial Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School. 

Grit Daily: Let’s just dive right into the biggest issue facing the US, and much of the world right now: systemic racism. Have we hit the tipping point?

Susan Herman: We’ve hit a tipping point. The issue is what happens next with respect to policing. There are currently over 250 legislative bills in 26 states proposing police reform, including constraints on techniques like choke holds, as well as proposing more accountability and increased oversight. The real tipping point would require a significant cultural shift that reduces the footprint of the police, ends their ability to arrest people for minor crimes and homelessness, decriminalizes pot and directs their focus to the intervention of violent crimes. Reducing interaction reduces the likelihood of discriminatory policing and hence, reduces the number of incidents where deadly force is applied.

The ACLU just published a report, “A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform,” which highlights how half of all drug arrests in the USA have been for possession of marijuana and how Blacks have been disproportionately arrested four times as often as Whites. Other examples include practices like Minnesota’s “Warrior Training” for its police force. Studies showed that this training is neither a safe nor effective approach to managing the use of force during arrests. As a result of those studies, Minneapolis formally cut ties with the program, but police officers still have the option to participate. Clearly, there’s still work to be done.

GD: Will the recent protests drive ACLU to do anything differently?

SH: The protests have made people consciously aware of the things that we’ve been working on for 100 years at the ACLU. The problem of mass incarceration has been an issue that we’ve focused on for a long time. Many of the social problems that we tackle as an organization relate to policing. The recent protests enable the ACLU to build on the momentum that has been created. Today, many people are finally realizing that there is a high cost to some of us feeling “safe” via police protection. Over time, we as a society have collectively spent so much time and money supporting this dysfunction that we’ve ended up with a milieu of police with too little accountability. It’s time to rethink the entire system.

GD: People have rallied to ‘defund the police,’ what does that really mean?

SH: People mean different things in using that word, but the common element is that there should be divestment of some of the budget we dedicate to policing.  One-quarter of all people arrested are mentally ill. Some of the monies allocated to policing should be redirected towards mental health crisis services and into training people on how to respond to those living through homelessness and drug addiction, which are situations that the police shouldn’t  be asked to deal with anyway. If we had a more sensible approach with a supportive infrastructure, we wouldn’t need the police to have all the range of responsibilities that they have today. Only 4% of arrests involve crimes of violence: that’s a tremendous amount of leeway to fund other professionals who can intervene in cases other than rape and murder. We can all hope that the protests have ushered in a call for change; we shouldn’t be looking at everything as a nail and planning to hammer away at it. The intention of the ACLU is to strive to do better and raise awareness of the issues.

GD: Have the protests affected your leadership and ability to drive change? What effect have they had on the likelihood of the ACLU winning cases?

SH: We are less likely to win in Federal Court because the current administration has stocked the Supreme Court and lower federal courts with judges who are extremely conservative. So the Courts are becoming a more challenging place for the ACLU to operate. As such, we are increasingly looking at the political arena where we can raise awareness of where each candidate stands on key issues, then educate their constituents and encourage voters to make informed choices. We’re a non-partisan organization but we’re vocal about civil liberties issues and do all that we can to ensure that everyone is fully able to exercise their right to vote. We encourage voters to learn about their candidates, particularly those running for the important roles of District Attorney and State Prosecutors. Our efforts urge votes to attend debates and to ask questions regarding candidates’ plans for policing schools, handling bail and so on. The ACLU wants voters to take an active role in choosing our policymakers. We’re highly active in public education and emphasize that people need information to decide for themselves how they think we should be advancing liberty and justice for all.

GD: Does your professional responsibility blur into what becomes your personal responsibility or is it the other way around?

SH: My personal and professional lives are inextricably linked. I chose a career path where I could work on issues concerning equity and social justice; that’s why I went to law school. I think that people’s values are formed at a very early age, so the story that I like to tell about how I became a civil libertarian is from when I was a young child. I learned about talking back to authorities from my mom when I was in the third grade. Our school play that year was Johnny Tremaine, which highlights coming of age issues, bullying and the tolerance of disabilities. I was impressed with the play and wanted to read the book, so I tried to take it out from our public school library. However, I was told that I was forbidden from doing so because it was classified as content for boys only and that I should go choose a book from the girls’ section of the library. When I told my mother, she exploded! She immediately called the librarian and said that I should be allowed to read whatever I wanted to. Shortly thereafter, the library changed its borrowing policy. So, later in life when I told my mother that I was going to join the ACLU, she wasn’t surprised at all.  She joined too.

GD: There’s also a connecting theme of women’s issues that tie into the ACLU, correct?

SH: In 1920, the year the ACLU was founded, women finally got the right to vote.  For years before that, suffragists had used their organizing power to press for having their voices heard and winning representation.  During World War I, suffragists were picketing the White House to protest President Woodrow Wilson’s hypocrisy in claiming that he was making the world safe for democracy, given that half of the American people couldn’t vote. Because those women were dissenting from public norms, they were met with harassment, brutality, and hundreds of arrests — leading to many women being imprisoned and even a hunger strike.

Those protests have eerie similarities to what we’re seeing today, with the use of rubber bullets, tear gas, attacking and arresting journalists, and other excessive uses of force. Today’s immigration issues are also frighteningly similar to the xenophobia and hysteria of a century ago. It feels like history is repeating itself. Roger Baldwin, one of the founders of the ACLU, said that, “No civil liberties battle ever remains won.” One hundred years later, that still rings true: we need constant vigilance.

GD: How are you using your platform to drive change?

SH: The ACLU believes in coalitions. We have branches in every state, which enables us to get things done from the ground up. Being able to operating at the local level is critical because of regional differences. Our team is not announcing a one-size-fits-all policy to police reform.  We think there should be divestment, reallocating money from police budgets; but we want local people and groups to be part of the process of deciding what changes would be best and most feasible for them, and to make their own, informed decisions about budget reallocation.

GD: What are some of the projects you’re currently working on?

SH: Minneapolis is currently considering making some changes to policing and the associated budgets. However, they have to first amend their City Charter, which requires a certain amount of money to go to policing.  That change requires a ballot initiative and that is something the ACLU is highly experienced in managing. We played a major role in the Florida initiative that reinstated voting rights for 1.4 million people with criminal convictions.

This feels like a moment when we can be optimistic because so many Americans are beginning to understand the scope and depth of structural racism. How we think about policing is ingrained in our culture, dating back to the original role of law enforcement in capturing runaway slaves, and amplified in the quest to support white supremacy during the Jim Crow era of segregation. Today, it’s inextricably connected with our mass incarceration policies.

There are connections everywhere: until we change the design of policing, we cannot guarantee equal justice. The question isn’t whether we need to trade public safety for the sake of reform – we should remember that only 4% of crimes are violent. The criminal justice system has been an active disruptor of people’s lives and it’s time to start talking about better solutions.

One of the reasons why I work with the ACLU is because we’re not limited to only one issue: we work in 14 areas of civil liberties including racial justice, women’s rights, LGBTQ equality, etc. We connect the dots. If we all don’t treat everyone with respect, everyone’s rights are at risk. I was asked if the recent policing protests were connected to the pandemic, and my answer was, “Yes.” Just as people of color are being affected disproportionately by police brutality, people of color are being disproportionately affected by the virus, partly because many can’t afford to shelter in place because they need to be out there making a living collecting trash, stocking the supermarket and so on — keeping those of us who can work from home safe. What we’ve seen is a new solidarity of White people marching alongside others because they understand that we are not all equally situated.  Some people are fortunate enough to feel safer with police dominating a scene; others quite understandably feel less safe.

GD: You’re a highly public figure, but is there something that you wish people knew about you?

SH: I think that I’d like to share with people what I deeply believe. I recently gave a talk that I called, “A Democrat and a Republican walk into a bar…”  It seems these days that Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on anything.  But we all need to be able to agree on fundamental American principles like due process, equality, and freedom of conscience.  My North Star is the golden rule that everyone should be treated fairly: if you want the right to freely practice your religion or exercise your Constitutional right to say what you think, then you need to recognize that others share those same rights. If you don’t want to be mistreated because of who you are, you need to insist that other people’s lives and choices be equally respected. The ACLU believes in neutral values and principles. I’m optimistic and I do believe that if all sides could sit down long enough to talk about the meaning and nature of our fundamental principles, we might actually agree on more than we would have expected.

GD: What’s your best advice for Whites on how to navigate Black Lives Matter and white privilege? It’s an uncomfortable topic for many that needs to be faced head-on.

SH: Coming to terms with how other people’s experiences have been different from our own is the key. It’s important to pass the mic and listen to what Black people want to say. But that doesn’t mean that White allies are entitled to demand that Black people teach them what to do and what to read.  Some People of Color have been telling us that they are exhausted explaining things to White people. It’s time that we all start educating ourselves. None of us should just sit back and wait for someone else to do it for us. Each of us needs to take responsibility and take action. To quote Thomas Jefferson, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

Images provided by Susan Herman.





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