Inside the ACLU: defending white supremacists as a black attorney

As a constitutional lawyer I fully support the First Amendment. But as a black person, I’m conflicted when it comes to defending hate.

Abre’ Conner
6 September 2017

National Alliance Neo-Nazi Rally, Union Station, Massachusetts Avenue, Washington DC, Saturday 24 August 2002. Credit: Flickr/ElvertBarnesAttribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Being a black constitutional and civil rights attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) can be more emotionally unsettling than I am sometimes willing to admit.

And over the years, I have struggled with decisions we’ve made to defend those who foment hate, who proselytize against my very existence and openly long for a return to the days when people like me were legally considered less than human. Because it means that as an ACLU attorney, I am defending them, too.

The organization that fought alongside the NAACP Legal Defense Fund for school desegregation in the 1950s and that helped overturn extreme voter ID laws in Pennsylvania and Arkansas in 2014, also intervened on behalf of the white nationalist who organized the rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, three weekends ago in which one woman was killed and many others injured.

The decision by the ACLU of Virginia to defend the group’s right to free speech and expression triggered a strong public reaction from both outside and within the organization—especially potent given the outpouring of public goodwill we received from a country reeling from the election of Donald Trump.

The ACLU takes the position that a threat to free speech anywhere will harm the progress of free speech and civil rights for groups that historically had been oppressed as well. It has defended the constitutional rights of the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups in the past and our leaders have made it clear we will continue to do so in the future. And certainly, a number of planned rallies by hate groups in the coming days and weeks present a real opportunity for that to happen.

As a constitutional lawyer, I fully support the First Amendment and understand and agree that we must advocate for tolerance of ideas when the purpose is to create a space for tolerance. But this ignites an internal conflict for me when some of these groups seem to advocate for intolerance—of my existence.

The current climate has caused me and some of my ACLU colleagues to consider what it means to be black advocates for free speech, especially when we know that some of this speech threatens our very existence and that of other people of color.

In the wake of Charlottesville, the ACLU adopted a policy change to impose stricter screenings and take legal requests from white supremacist groups on a case-by-case basis. We will no longer represent hate groups that demonstrate with firearms. I appreciate this change.

But in the end, I’m not convinced that more speech that spreads hate and fulfills a white, racist, and divisive agenda in this country will bring about a better result for people like me, who are its targets. The leaders of the white national movement openly admitted they used “free speech” grounds to test whether they could create more hostile protests without legal opposition.

During my two years at the ACLU, I have represented individuals to ensure school districts, cities, and local agencies did not impede individuals’ constitutionally protected speech. For example, I represented students on a yearbook staff after their school district tried to censor their Black Lives Matter content from the yearbook. In another case, I advocated that a school district could not remove Black History Month paintings by a San Francisco-based artist solely because someone might be offended.

It feels good when I can use the First Amendment as a tool to ensure equality for people of color.

But there’s an emergence in this country of hate groups that unapologetically wage war on people they don’t envision in their version of America. Many of them are headquartered in Northern California and California’s Central Valley, where I live.

I grew up in the South, and watched the KKK march through the Martin Luther King parade in my hometown. Just this week, I witnessed three cars in Fresno, in Central California, flying Confederate flags. Knowing these could be my neighbors, owners of businesses I frequent or, worse, people I know personally, make these instances particularly frightening.

Watching this resurgence of Confederate pride and flags across the country and hearing conversations that fail to recognize that these symbols are rooted in black dehumanization make navigating this space mentally and emotionally taxing. It makes me all the more committed to being true to my core racial justice values and true to the social justice community.

I have been outspoken within my office about what it means for me as a black attorney representing white supremacists. And my office has created a safe space for me to discuss how that feels. I’ve also made a point to check in with other black ACLU colleagues at my job, understanding that we are each processing this in our own way and might just want to talk.

This artihcle was first published in YES! Magazine.

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