Civil rights gains cut two ways

Lessons from years working as an ACLU volunteer

WHAT CAN BE LEARNED from interviewing hundreds of persons with civil liberties complaints as a legal resources volunteer at the Massachusetts office of the American Civil Liberties Union?  Interacting with the public over a decade and a half permits observations about our conflict-ridden society and how civil liberties initiatives and advances may inadvertently play a role in fomenting division and partisanship.   These observations also partly explain why some citizens appear willing to betray the political and judicial structures that define and defend the freedoms of us all.

There may be a great deal of compassion and tolerance in the world, but ACLU volunteers become aware of how frequently individuals disregard their better angels and appear all to willing to trample on others’ dignity and security, if not their constitutional rights.  Judging from callers’ complaints, the tendency of some persons to impose their personal preferences, beliefs, biases, and sense of morality on others is widespread; more often than not, offending persons hold positions of institutional authority.

For example, volunteers in Massachusetts frequently field complaints from Black citizens about biases embedded in law enforcement actions—racial profiling by local or state police, experiencing physical abuse by law enforcement officers, being denied access to police records, having officials falsify reports and court testimony, or being denied needed assistance.  Without knowing the veracity of any one or another of these charges, their sheer volume and commonalities lead one to see how the deaths of Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Gardner, Freddie Davis, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other Black citizens arise out of biases present in everyday interactions and continue to do so.

Speaking with complainants has deepened my understanding about the connections between law and society.  Every legislative action or court decision that affirms the rights of the formerly disenfranchised cuts two ways; civil liberty “victories” that protect individual choice from state interference, for example, in the use of contraception, inter-racial marriage, or same-sex marriage, also represent legal, and undoubtedly moral, defeats for opponents.  Even though the constitutional rights of White, male, Christian, and straight persons will be vigorously defended, individuals may feel devalued or disenfranchised when others make equality gains.

In this way, civil liberty advances play a role in on-going tension between social change and the status quo.   Civil libertarians do what they are supposed to do–advance the promise of equality and justice for all, recognizing that doing so inescapably changes the status order.  Indeed, reordering an unjust society may be the point, even as that reordering does not go uncontested.  Nothing in our social relations is ever settled permanently and the script for our society being written by opposing factions is never finalized.   Indeed, whether the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice remains an open question.

Finally, I have come to recognize how the ability to protect civil liberties and the future of our free society depend on countering a growing anti-democratic impulse in America.  Callers occasionally reflect the sense of personal resentment, dispossession, and anti-government anger coursing through many parts of the country.   Doing their work on behalf of justice and equality, civil libertarians easily become part of the problem in the eyes of discontented citizens.

What can be learned from interviewing hundreds of persons with civil liberties complaints as a legal resources volunteer at the Massachusetts office of the American Civil Liberties Union?  Interacting with the public over a decade and a half permits observations about our conflict-ridden society and how civil liberties initiatives and advances may inadvertently play a role in fomenting division and partisanship.   These observations also partly explain why some citizens appear willing to betray the political and judicial structures that define and defend the freedoms of us all.

There may be a great deal of compassion and tolerance in the world, but ACLU volunteers become aware of how frequently individuals disregard their better angels and appear all to willing to trample on others’ dignity and security, if not their constitutional rights.  Judging from callers’ complaints, the tendency of some persons to impose their personal preferences, beliefs, biases, and sense of morality on others is widespread; more often than not, offending persons hold positions of institutional authority.

For example, volunteers in Massachusetts frequently field complaints from Black citizens about biases embedded in law enforcement actions—racial profiling by local or state police, experiencing physical abuse by law enforcement officers, being denied access to police records, having officials falsify reports and court testimony, or being denied needed assistance.  Without knowing the veracity of any one or another of these charges, their sheer volume and commonalities lead one to see how the deaths of Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Gardner, Freddie Davis, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other Black citizens arise out of biases present in everyday interactions and continue to do so.

Speaking with complainants has deepened my understanding about the connections between law and society.  Every legislative action or court decision that affirms the rights of the formerly disenfranchised cuts two ways; civil liberty “victories” that protect individual choice from state interference, for example, in the use of contraception, inter-racial marriage, or same-sex marriage, also represent legal, and undoubtedly moral, defeats for opponents.  Even though the constitutional rights of White, male, Christian, and straight persons will be vigorously defended, individuals may feel devalued or disenfranchised when others make equality gains.

In this way, civil liberty advances play a role in on-going tension between social change and the status quo.   Civil libertarians do what they are supposed to do–advance the promise of equality and justice for all, recognizing that doing so inescapably changes the status order.  Indeed, reordering an unjust society may be the point, even as that reordering does not go uncontested.  Nothing in our social relations is ever settled permanently and the script for our society being written by opposing factions is never finalized.   Indeed, whether the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice remains an open question.

Finally, I have come to recognize how the ability to protect civil liberties and the future of our free society depend on countering a growing anti-democratic impulse in America.  Callers occasionally reflect the sense of personal resentment, dispossession, and anti-government anger coursing through many parts of the country.   Doing their work on behalf of justice and equality, civil libertarians easily become part of the problem in the eyes of discontented citizens.

Add to this a considerable army of persons willing to use social media to exploit a sense of diminished status with disinformation, outright lies, conspiratorial theories, and calls for authoritarian leaders.   Together, autocratic individuals and their collaborators foster and exploit popular discontent for power, fame, and money.

Too many fellow-Americans appear willing to express their dissatisfactions by seeking to restrict voting among populations they believe oppose them, working to control the machinery of elections in order to dictate favored outcomes, issuing threats of violence, and seeding the courts with judges because of their ideological predispositions and known biases rather than their experience, judicial temperament, and open mindedness.

Legislative actions and court decisions, based in part in opposition to the civil liberties agenda, are turning increasingly coercive.  Decisions, such as the recent Dobbs anti-abortion ruling of the Supreme Court, give legislatures the option to impose the kind of moral views that many ACLU callers are seeking to avoid.

Fulfilling this country’s promise ultimately depends on universal democratic processes and on judicial independence—essential guardrails protecting our freedoms.  The battle to protect democracy constitutes an epic struggle to determine whether our society remains free or turns increasingly authoritarian.   There will undoubtedly be many civil liberties complaints in the future; the question is whether our public institutions will be sufficiently viable to address them.

John Aram has served as a legal resource volunteer with the Massachusetts office of the American Civil Liberties Union for 14 years.  He is also a  retired professor of management policy at Case Western Reserve University and professor and associate dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences at Lesley University.