The Next Generation
At the recent ACLU national conference in San Francisco, the new guard wasn't hard to spot. They were the ones sitting on the floor instead of on chairs in the debates and panels. They escorted members of the press and gave tours to those who were visiting San Francisco for the first time. They seemed to travel in packs, one slightly older young person leading a group of five or six teenagers. If you didn't know this was a conference dedicated to protecting our constitutional civil liberties, you would be forgiven for thinking it was some kind of rock concert.
Courtroom victories and media attention aside, you can often tell the health of an organization by how many young people are joining. By that simple measure the ACLU is in fine form at 84 years old. The ACLU has over 400,000 members, more than 200,000 of those have joined in the last two years and 34 percent of those new members are under 25. The organization is as sharp as ever, striking down provisions of the Patriot Act with biting briefs that manage to be both legal analysis and passionate critique. And the organization's heart seems to be working just as effectively. They have sponsored visits for released detainees to speak in Washington, D.C. and director Anthony Romero recently visited Guantanamo Bay, along with an Amnesty International representative, and wrote moving letters about what he witnessed there.
Can the new ACLU keep up with itself? Caroline Friedman, 16, an intern in the New York office, seems to think so. When asked about Romero, Friedman said, "I'm awed by all his energy." When a teenager who gets straight As in school and is active in a host of extracurricular activities says that, it seems like the highest compliment.
Friedman was at the national Membership Conference, held in July in San Francisco, talking with Morgan McDonald, 21, co-chair of the Youth Affairs Committee and William Walker, 24, a member of Northern California chapter. She spent her summer learning about the Patriot Act and teaching other teenagers in New York about its consequences. "Because of my parents, I've always had a political awareness," she says. "But after the Patriot Act passed and I read sections that said that any library book or video I take out was subject to government scrutiny," I got angry and wanted to get more involved." When she looked around for who was doing the most active organizing against the Patriot Act, she found the ACLU.
McDonald thinks that the infusion of youth energy makes the ACLU more assertive, a necessary thing in these times when civil liberties seem a low government priority. "Before, I think the ACLU would wait for people to come to them with complaints," says McDonald. "Now we have to be out there because rights are being eroded at an accelerated pace. There are more field teams and more young organizers."
"My first involvement with the ACLU was actually a direct action protest," says Walker, a tall African American young man. "I got involved in protesting Proposition 21 and got a lot of young people to get involved around juvenile justice issues." He's quick to point out though that the Northern California chapter might be more open to more grassroots activism. "The closer you get to the national level the harder it is to talk about direct action or nonviolent protest," he said.
Binah Palmer, a 25-year-old field and legislative associate with ACLU Washington finds that a lot of the organizing that people are doing locally mirrors what's happening at the state and nationwide levels. In the past two years, she's seen a huge growth of youth interest and the inception of two new Washington state high school chapters. Two new college chapters of the ACLU have sprung up just in the last six months. "Students are urging their student bodies to pass resolutions protecting civil liberties and rejecting the Patriot Act," she says. The University of Washington, Whitman College and Washington State University have all recently passed resolutions that mirror the resolutions passed by the Bill of Rights Defense Committees at the city and state levels.
"Young people see their friends being profiled and stopped on the street," says McDonald. "They hear the president talk about limiting marriage rights to heterosexual couples and they think of themselves or their friends, who one day won't be able to marry a loved one."
Miriam (she preferred not to give her last name) is a high school student from Arkansas who recently helped start a student chapter of the ACLU at her high school. "I got involved because of the proposed constitutional amendment limiting the definition of marriage," she said. "It seemed like the ACLU was one of the only mainstream groups speaking up against it and doing something about it," she said.
Still change is slow in coming in an organization. The average age of members nationwide is probably still somewhere in the fifties and the organization still wins most of its victories in courts as opposed to in the streets. Walker, McDonald and others say that while change is happening, not everyone is embracing the more active energy of some of the youth members. And McDonald points out that the National Youth Affairs Committee of the ACLU still only has one youth representative.
"Young people in the ACLU are carrying on the tradition, but with their own energy, passion and enthusiasm, " says Palmer. "They are the next generation of civil libertarians." Romero believes it is this next generation that will keep the ACLU thriving and relevant. "We need young people to make [civil liberties] their cause," he recently told a Princeton audience. "Civil rights is being redefined at this moment and we need young people to help define what climate for civil liberties we are going to live in."
But if it's clear why the ACLU needs youth, do young people also need the ACLU? Why are these young people getting involved in the ACLU instead of in smaller, local organizations? In Miriam's case, there wasn't any local organization to join. "It's pretty dead, activism wise, in my town in Arkansas," she says. She also liked the idea of being part of something larger. Living in New York, Caroline is familiar with a lot of activist groups, but she liked the idea of being part of a national organization with a long history of protecting civil liberties. "I think with the crackdown on protesters and immigrants, the ACLU is one way to be really involved in a national thing and make a real difference without risking arrest," she said.
Perhaps one of the biggest changes that young people will bring to the ACLU is not a change in tactics but a determination on keeping the focus on the issues that matter to them most. Walker and others say that the issues that matter most to young people – from juvenile sentencing, music censorship and racial profiling, to gay and lesbian rights – also matter to the ACLU. It's just a question of bringing two different styles and cultures together, they say.
"I want to make the ACLU and civil liberties concerns more relevant to youth of color and to young people in disadvantaged communities," says Walker. "A lot of people still think of the ACLU as a bunch of older white people and it isn't any more. To survive and thrive, the ACLU has to represent diverse communities and build a movement toward a freer and less racially divisive society. That might sound utopian, but that's what the world needs."