On “My Grandfather’s ACLU”

By Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Court Room Jury Chairs

One of the more entertaining aspects of my job as legislative director, aka lobbyist, for the ACLU of Pennsylvania is that I attract all manner of fascinating conversations on a typical day at the state capitol. On a given day, the topics can range from prisons and who’s lying about them to prescription drug monitoring and its potential to be used for political payback to shooting down drones over private property. There is never a dull moment.

Recently, I had a conversation with a law enforcement official I consider a friend, or at least a friendly work acquaintance. (He shall remain safely anonymous.) This person is a civil libertarian in most ways- voting rights, reproductive rights, LGBT equality- but doesn’t get the civil liberties argument for criminal justice. He told me that “my grandfather’s ACLU” would be all about voter ID, reproductive rights, etc. but not criminal justice.

Never mind that the ACLU was involved in the appeals of the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s (https://www.aclu.org/criminal-law-reform/aclu-history-scottsboro-boys), which led to two landmark Supreme Court decisions and which national ACLU describes as “a milestone in the emergence of a national civil rights movement.”

National ACLU notes:

From its very beginnings, the ACLU was at the forefront of the movement to establish constitutional standards in the criminal justice system and to safeguard against abuses of power by those in law enforcement.

To give you a little peek behind the curtain, “what’s the civil liberties issue” is a familiar mantra for our staff. When we consider taking up an issue, either we ask ourselves that question or one of our board members asks. So why is criminal justice a civil liberties issue? It’s hard to list every reason, but here are a few:

Because the constitution has clear protections and boundaries for the criminal justice system, including a right to an attorney, a right to due process of law, the right to be considered “innocent until proven guilty,” the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the right to equal protection under the law.

Because “stop-and-frisk” policies by police are disproportionately used against innocent black people, particularly young men. Even if they were not, the police have no right to search someone without cause.

Because stationing police officers in schools inevitably leads to more children funneled into the criminal justice system, particularly young people of color and young people with disabilities.

Because black people in Pennsylvania are five times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana offenses while survey data shows that usage is virtually the same across all races.

Because black people are far more likely to be incarcerated for drug offenses, despite using and selling drugs at essentially the same rate as whites.

Because Pennsylvania has consistently had one of the highest rates of minorities sentenced to death in the country. As of last year, 61 percent of inmates on death row in the commonwealth were people of color, mostly black men. At its peak in the last decade, that number rose as high as 70 percent. Even without racial disparities, execution at the government’s hand is the ultimate deprivation of liberty.

Because collecting DNA from people who have not been convicted of a crime without a search warrant violates the fundamental right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. With arrest rates disproportionately impacting minorities, this expansion of DNA collection will inevitably lead to a new pool of permanent, mostly minority suspects. (Note: As of this writing, the ACLU of Pennsylvania has successfully stopped this legislation. Expect it to be considered in the state House this spring.)

I could go on, but this is already too long for a typical blog post. You get the point. For a wide array of reasons, criminal justice is a civil liberties issue. If your grandfather was a member of the ACLU, I hope that he would appreciate our stance for liberty, wherever it needs defended.

This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.

The Point of Reparations

By Ryan Very, Legal Fellow, ACLU of Pennsylvania


In the past, the American Civil Liberties Union has supported proposed federal legislation that would recommend methods of monetary redress to African-Americans for slavery. Opponents of these ‘reparations’ commonly argue against them on the grounds that no person alive today was alive during slavery. A contemporary obligation to pay reparations would attribute “inherited guilt” to descendants of slaveholders, or so opponents maintain, and that would be preposterous.

These opponents mistakenly assume that reparations claims are derivative claims (i.e. designed to address wrongs that happened to other people long ago) that address private wrongs (i.e. wrongs between individuals). Reparations claims should not be viewed as derivative claims that address private wrongs but as claims that address the government’s continuing failure, as a matter of policy, to rectify slavery’s inequitable systemic legacy.

American racial subjugation hardly ended with ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. President Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, was an open white supremacist who supported state governments’ establishment of “Black Codes” that coerced blacks back onto plantations. Jim Crow was sanctified by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 and was not dismantled until the latter half of the 20th century, which means that many African-Americans alive today lived under it. It was not until the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 and the civil rights legislation of the 1960s that the federal government contemplated enforcing its “official” support of civil rights for blacks. After enduring 300 years of slavery and Jim Crow, an income gap continues to exist between African-Americans and their white counterparts, the wealth gap continues to expand, and federal agencies such as the Home Owners Loan Corporation and the Federal Housing Administration have “redlined” black neighborhoods by singling them out in order to deny them purchase loans and inflate their interest rates.

These wrongs are recent and have allowed the federal government to “reconfigure” racial subjugation so that it could survive the abolition of slavery. This is why reparations are not a matter of honoring debts incurred in the past, but a matter of holding the government accountable for its continuing perpetuation of racial inequality through its own policies. Arguments in favor of reparations need not hold descendants of slaveholders accountable for their ancestors, but may appeal to a principle that plays a basic role in American political thought and the ACLU’s mission to extend rights to segments of our population to which they have been traditionally denied.

This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.

This is a short version of an argument presented by my graduate school adviser and intellectual hero David Lyons in his new book Confronting Injustice: Moral History and Political Theory (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2013). See also his essay “Corrective Justice, Equal Opportunity, and the Legacy of Slavery and Jim Crow,” Boston University Law Review 84 (2004) 1375-1404.

How a School System Led Me to Advocate for Civil Rights

By Joy Miller, co-founder of the Education and Juvenile Justice Advocacy Network

(credit: aclupa)

(credit: aclupa)

I thought that having your civil rights violated in schools was something that you only heard about in the days of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Never in my wildest dreams could I have ever imagined that I would face the day when my child would be criminalized and have his rights violated by his school. I always thought of school as a place where caring people cultivate relationships with the youth and assist in enhancing their academic and emotional development. My son’s experience in the school district where we will live has been eye opening to say the least.

When my son was in 6th grade, he was arrested for showing another student a miniature Swiss army knife that he found on school grounds. Before this incident, my son was a safety officer and had just made honor roll a month before being handcuffed and hauled off the school grounds into a police car. Despite having a positive performance record, no considerations were taken into account by school district officials when levying heavy consequences.

I learned the hard way that when it comes down to the logistics of handling school discipline matters that it’s about knowing your rights, documentation, and legalities. I was shocked when I received a copy of my son’s written statement, which contradicted what school officials told me initially when they notified me about the incident. My son’s statement read that he wanted to bring a knife to school for protection, which couldn’t have been further from the truth! I asked my son what made him write such a thing, when he had found it on the school grounds and had shown it to a friend in the bathroom. He informed me that the first statement that he wrote said that he found the knife outside the school and had only shown it to a friend. However, he said that the statement was thrown in the trash by the assistant principal. She had instructed him to write it over and said that he hadn’t written the statement truthfully as it happened. My son told me that he had explained to her that he didn’t know what else to write, because he had written what happened the first time, which was the truth. He then informed me that he was told by the assistant principal that it was okay if he wanted to write that he really brought the knife to school for protection and that he wouldn’t be in trouble. So he figured that he would write exactly as she said, since he was told that he wouldn’t be in trouble, or so he thought.

In my eyes, I call this abuse of authority, subliminal persuasion, and pressure. I knew that the statement I was reading was untrue, because I was personally informed by the school staff that my son located the miniature Swiss army knife on the school premises, and there was never any mention of him having it for protection. What was I to do at that point? Too much time had passed, the statement was already written, and the consequences had already been determined. I was outraged that my son had been persuaded into writing other than what had actually occurred and made to incriminate himself to look like he had intentions to hurt someone with a weapon. By this time the damage was already done.

Seeing how the school district blindsided me with their questionable tactics, how they ignored my son’s long-standing efforts to maintain a positive record and labeled him a criminal, has been both challenging and motivating. The lesson learned in dealing with our school district has given me a new life journey and has taken me in a direction that has encouraged me to focus on educating and advocating for the civil rights of parents and youth. The challenges I faced during my personal experience has empowered me to follow in the footsteps of the many people that have stood for the rights of others. I want to ensure that other parents and youth are educated about their rights when it comes to the education and juvenile justice system, so that they don’t end up blindsided like I once was. The journey of educating parents and youth about their civil rights was a mission that I took on knowing that I would have a long obstacle filled road ahead.

I felt compelled to focus my first call of action on creating a parent advocacy support network that provides resources and services to parents and youth. As co-founder of the Education and Juvenile Justice Advocacy Network, our goal is to equip parents with the education and tools needed to effectively address school matters using an informed approach. The idea to create an advocacy network for parents was not only inspired by my personal story, but also by the many similar school district stories that other parents have shared as well.

Since dealing with my personal school district matters and being empowered to advocate for the rights of other parents and youth, I have a deeper understanding for those before me who fought for the liberties of others. The civil rights leaders and social reform pioneers are the people who paved the way for organizations like the Education and Juvenile Justice Advocacy Network to exist. So as I walk in the purpose of those who fought for our civil rights, I honor humanitarians and social justice reformers past and present who dedicate their lives to the crusade.

This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.

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Joy Miller is the co-founder of the Education and Juvenile Justice Advocacy Network and a volunteer for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Zero Tolerance: A Student’s Perspective

By Mykal Washington, Intern, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Mykal Washington, sophomore at Mastery Charter School, Lenfest Campus

Mykal Washington, sophomore at Mastery Charter School, Lenfest Campus

In my fifteen years of living, it is only now that I realize that I and countless others are being victimized by a policy known as “zero tolerance.” Zero tolerance policies use predetermined punishments for specific violations and dishes out those punishments, completely disregarding the severity of the offense. A student could have politely disagreed with a teacher or said “no” in response to something a teacher instructed him to do. But it matters not because under zero tolerance policy, any challenge to a teacher is to be met with an automatic suspension.

A teen’s education is nothing to be trifled with. Minor offenses should not cause a student to miss school because it interferes with something precious – their education. The system of predetermined punishment, a.k.a. zero tolerance, does exactly this. Does this contribute to the learning process? School is supposed to be a place where children from all walks of life come to learn and further their knowledge. Mistakes allow us to recognize our faults and wrongdoings, thus bettering us as people and individuals. To punish us for every little mistake we make is to prevent us from growing. Children need to learn from their mistakes, rather than be removed from a learning environment.

This constant feeling of being watched for every move you make becomes stressful rather fast. It makes me, and I’m pretty sure a great deal of other students, feel as though school is our enemy, thus not encouraging us to be enthusiastic about attending. Is this the true purpose of the school system? At my school, Mastery Charter School Lenfest Campus, there are a number of different methods to mete out punishments, with the most prominent being the demerit system. Students at my school are required to carry around a demerit card with our school ID badges. The card lists categories of trivial and minor violations ranging from chewing gum, improper uniform (like having your shirt untucked), disruption, lateness, body language, language, disrespect, environment (e.g. leaving a workspace unkempt), integrity, and being unprepared. This long list puts students in a constant state of high alert, making us wary of every single thing we do. In my opinion offenses as trivial as simply saying “no” to teachers or disagreeing with them are not offenses worthy of a missed day of education. To my peers and me, this situation is absolutely unacceptable. It is sending a message to the world that education takes a back seat to talking back, that education takes a back seat to throwing a paper ball across the room, that education takes a back seat to an untucked shirt.

Besides these categories there is a wide range of offenses that “warrant” even greater punishment, like suspension, and I would know, considering I committed one. I was in 9th grade, and a fellow student and I were heatedly debating something when he suddenly threw a paper plate at me (we were at lunch). My first instinct was to throw the plate back, which I did. In the following moments I was swiftly suspended and missed a total of two days from my education due to throwing a harmless piece of styrofoam which traveled less than a foot across the table. The point of this anecdote is to illustrate the negative effect zero tolerance is having on students: while attempting to get an education we are being deprived of it for trivial reasons. Zero tolerance instills in us a fear of being suspended or expelled, which leads to us growing even greater disdain for school.

We are on high alert all the time – it’s not like we’re on a submarine in wartime – we’re kids going to school. It feels like the school is against us, that we’re in an adversarial relationship, which is the opposite of what school should be. How can we be inspired in this environment? How can we give our best? How can we believe that schools and staff wish great things for us? It is my belief that we learn better when we make mistakes.

Education is an opportunity to learn new things and to better one’s self as an individual. Education is an opportunity to advance in life and to broaden one’s horizons. School is supposed to be an environment where this opportunity is cultivated to its fullest potential. School is supposed to be an institution where the opportunity of education is pushed beyond its limits to constantly set new ones. So why is it that schools are attempting to deprive children, well deserving children of an education? The zero tolerance policies must be stopped for the sake of our children – our future. If not, disastrous results await us,. It will be far too late to repair the underlying problem.

This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.

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Mykal Washington is a sophomore at Mastery Charter School, Lenfest Campus and aspires to a career in writing. He is interning this semester at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Since When is it Criminal to be a Kid?

By Maheen Kaleem, Stoneleigh Emerging Leader Fellow, ACLU of Pennsylvania


Imagine yourself as an adolescent. A fellow classmate who has been annoying you the whole year finally goes too far—he talks about your girlfriend. As a response, you use profanity, and you and the classmate start yelling at each other. Are you disrupting the classroom? Of course. The teacher hears the two of you. Instead of pulling both of you aside to have a conversation, or sending you to the principal’s office, he summons a police officer from the hallway.

That police officer has three options. He can take you to school authorities and assist the principal in determining what school discipline consequences you will face. He can arrest you and charge you with a misdemeanor or a felony. If your actions are too minor to fit within the definition of a misdemeanor or felony under the Pennsylvania Criminal Code, the police officer can issue you a citation for “disorderly conduct.”

In Pennsylvania, “disorderly conduct” is a summary offense. It is the lowest grade of crime, and if you are a minor, you cannot be imprisoned for a summary offense. Sounds like it’s not that a big deal, right? Until you find out that in addition to being suspended, you have to go to court and you have to pay a fine. You aren’t going to juvenile court because summary offenses are heard in adult court. You don’t have an automatic right to an attorney. It is just you, a teenager, your parent, and the judge in adult court. And it is your word against a police officer’s. You and your family can be ordered to pay fines as high as $300. If you are found guilty, the incident will stay on your record as an adult criminal conviction.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania recently issued a report, “Beyond Zero Tolerance: Discipline and Policing in Pennsylvania Public Schools,” which shows that black and Latino youth are at a disproportionate risk of being removed from school through suspension, expulsion and contact with law enforcement. Once students have one contact with the criminal justice system, they are likely to have further contact. They become alienated from school because of the stigma that comes with being system-involved, some drop out altogether. Convictions for summary offenses create an adult criminal record that later becomes a barrier to accessing higher education and obtaining employment.

Law enforcement officers throughout the commonwealth are issuing citations to students for catchall summary offenses such as disorderly conduct, harassment, and criminal mischief. Study upon study show that these low-level, non-violent acts are characteristic of normal adolescent behavior. Some examples of summary citations include a female student who was cited for telling a fellow student to “f-off” after he had been making inappropriate comments to her, and a student who was running in the hallway and accidentally ran into a teacher. Should this behavior be tolerated in a classroom or school setting? Maybe not. Does this mean that the student deserves an adult criminal conviction on their record? Absolutely not.

A magisterial judge in Pittsburgh recently spoke out against a new Pittsburgh Public Schools policy requiring that all summary citations be approved by the chief of school police before being issued. The judge claimed that sending students to his courtroom was a way to preserve school safety, because appearing in criminal court might “scare” students into compliance. This is the wrong approach. Summary citations are not issued for behaviors that pose a threat to school safety, and they are not issued in any consistent manner. Policies like the one in Pittsburgh decrease the number of citations issued for minor behaviors—they do not prevent school officials or law enforcement from taking all necessary measures to protect the school community.

School is where we learn how to interact with the rest of the world. Children make mistakes. Our first reaction should not be to push certain students out of school and into the justice system. If our goal is to keep our communities safe, we should work harder to keep our youth in school, and to teach all of our students how to resolve conflicts peacefully.

This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.

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Maheen Kaleem joined the ACLU-PA in August of 2013. Maheen recently received her J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center in May of 2013 and her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. She has worked on a number of issues related to the women’s rights and racial justice, with a particular emphasis on the rights of incarcerated women and children, and a special focus on the needs of girls in the juvenile justice system.

A Valentine’s Day Engagement

By Melissa Morris, Campaign Manager, Why Marriage Matters-PA

Me (left) and Vinnie

Me (left) and Vinnie

I’ve never been what anyone would call “traditional,” but I am a sucker for a good love story, so standing in front of my friends and family to marry the person I love was a no brainer once I realized Vinnie was the one with whom I wanted to spend my life.

I knew I had to find the perfect way to pop the question, and what more symbolic day for romance than Valentine’s Day?

It had to be sweet and personal but not too over the top; Vinnie doesn’t like over the top. So I planned a picnic in the middle of February. I found the perfect spot: a comfortable blanket on our living room floor. I covered the furniture to look like grass and put pictures of bunnies and flowers all around to give a sense of the outdoors. I filled a picnic basket with goodies and wine and put on soft music.

After eating I told Vinnie that I had an amazing Valentine’s Day gift, but in order to get it, Vinnie needed to answer a series of questions related to our relationship, each sealed inside an envelope. Things like where we met and first dates and little tokens of affection we had shown each other over the three years we had been together.

After successfully getting through the questions – my heart racing faster and faster with every envelope opened – Vinnie finally made it to the end. The last task involved picking the box that indicated how much Vinnie loved me. Fortunately, Vinnie chose the box labeled “more than anything in the world.” As Vinnie opened the box to see a ring, I got down on one knee, already filled with tears of joy and anticipation. When the ring was unveiled, joy filled both of our faces, and I asked Vinnie to make me the happiest woman in the world.

We called family and friends all over to share the news. Everyone was overjoyed because they had been a part of our life and shared in our love for the past three years.

After sharing love and congratulations, every person asked the same question: “Where are you getting married?”

Despite living, working, and sharing a life together in Pennsylvania, Vinnie and I couldn’t get married in our home state because we are both women. We’ve built a home together where hundreds of people have laughed and cried and broken bread, but in the eyes of the law, our commitment isn’t worthy of marriage. Despite Vinnie’s roots in Philadelphia, and her job as a police officer protecting its residents for over twenty years, she isn’t granted the same freedom as other Pennsylvanians to marry.

So, sadly, we left Pennsylvania to be able to marry. We brought a handful of our friends and family to our nation’s capital to swear to love and honor each other forever. We didn’t have the matriarch of Vinnie’s family, her aunt Big Morris, with us because she doesn’t travel well any more. My daughters, Angel and Ashley, couldn’t make it with my young grandchildren. Dozens of other friends and family sent cards and called, and we made sure there were pictures, but it didn’t heal the pain of not having them there to share in our happiness.

As citizens who are dedicated to our lives and our work in Pennsylvania, we’re hurt that our state not only prevented our family and friends from being a part of our actual wedding day, but also refuses to acknowledge the legal marriage license we went elsewhere to attain.

Vinnie and I met, grew to love each other, built a strong core of family and friends, and chose to get married. Our story is not so different than that of our straight friends, except they didn’t have to leave town to celebrate their love and commitment. I couldn’t love my wife any more than I do right now if she were a man. We support each other, we care for others in our community and we love this state. What will it take for Pennsylvania to show its love for us in return?

Melissa Morris is manager of the Why Marriage Matters-PA campaign. She is on staff at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Grandson of Color

By Bruce Makous, Development Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Matteo Flores-Makous

Matteo Flores-Makous

I remember writing an essay in my freshman year at Oberlin College, about the work of Dr. Martin Luther King from the point of view of a young white man. It was 1972. I said all the correct liberal things, making my thesis that, as a result of Dr. King’s work, racism was on the wane, and the world was becoming a beautiful place. In tone, it was a little bit like “Get Together,” the song by the Youngbloods. “C’mon people now, smile on your brother. Ev’rybody get together, try to love one another right now. Right now.” (I remind you, it was 1972.)

My professor said I was an idiot. “Just read the newspapers,” he said. “The world hasn’t changed that much. Racism in the U.S. is just as prevalent as it was before King.” In fact, he went on to say, he thought it was getting worse. I thought he was nothing but a curmudgeon, and I was absolutely convinced that my views, though possibly a bit simplistic, would be proven true in time.

Ever since my daughter Kacie gave birth last May to a son, Matteo, I have been revisiting my thinking on racism, with a much more personal focus. His father Joe is from a Salvadoran family, and I’m sure Matteo will be perceived as a Latino person of mixed race and he will be affected by residual biases against persons of color. As a result, I’ve been wondering what the world will be like for him. What kinds of problems is he going to face in twenty years, say, as a young man starting a career and a life of his own?

I tend to think that, in the age of Obama, which Martin Luther King’s work made possible, the monster of racism is being held at bay to some extent, but that isn’t true in all aspects of society and it doesn’t apply everywhere in the U.S. In some ways, in fact, I’m afraid that my professor wasn’t as far off as I thought back then. The biggest problems today, in my opinion, are related to implicit racism, present nearly everywhere, as well as deeply rooted, overt or “traditional” racism in many geographical locations throughout the U.S.

Because implicit or institutional racism – present just about everywhere in schools, employment, housing, criminal justice, and many other aspects of society – is hidden in procedures, rules, business practices, and laws, its bias is elusive and hard to identify. Its presence in such places as school discipline rules, police practices, and discrimination in business is almost certain to penalize Matteo during his lifetime. Fortunately, organizations such as the ACLU and its allies are attacking these issues, and we are raising awareness and making significant progress case by case. While permanent elimination of such biases may be difficult and elusive, I’m optimistic that we will continue to make progress.

On the other hand, when I think about geographically and culturally based racism, which I think could even more significantly hurt Matteo, I’m much less optimistic. I’m reminded of a point that anthropologist Jared Diamond makes in The World Before Yesterday, about humans having a basic “kill or be killed” instinct. He uses the example that, when traditional people (those living in primitive circumstances) are walking in the woods and they see one or more strangers, they know they must strike out or risk being killed. The key word, he explains, is “stranger.” Small tribes are familiar with only a few people, and larger tribes have longer lists of people who aren’t strangers, so fewer people in their area whom they don’t know and therefore might have to kill.

Our DNA hasn’t changed all that much. We still don’t trust strangers, and that’s the root of racism. Familiarity leads to trust. Modern metropolises are very diverse places in which we become familiar with large numbers of widely varied groups of people. We can know and learn to trust many people who may be different from us.

The concern comes when you think of the many huge homogenous ghettos of white people, covering about half the U.S., with little regular familiarity with people of color and otherwise diverse groups of individuals. This homogeneity, which frequently has been intentionally created and propagated, reinforces and perpetuates the strangeness of “the other,” the kill-or-be-killed attitude against people who are non-white or otherwise different. Watching enlightened TV shows like Modern Family, for any who happen to be so inclined, isn’t enough to create a real comfort level.

The deeply rooted racism in those regions is a long way from elimination and could even be a permanent feature of the culture in many regions. My advice to Matteo with respect to those dangerous geographical areas will be to try to avoid them if he can. Fortunately, there are many other places where Matteo can find culturally enlightened people who get along with people of all races and ethnicities. In those places, we actually do smile on our brothers and try to make the world a more beautiful place. Matteo will be much happier in those places.

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Writing this piece gave me a chance to have some meaningful personal conversations about these topics, particularly with my ACLU-PA colleague, Reggie Shuford, and Joe Flores, my son-in-law, which helped me flesh out my point-of-view. (Thankfully, their comments weren’t quite as harsh as those of my professor.) As a result, the article is much better.

This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.

Ruth Ellis – Everyday Hero

By Melissa Morris, Campaign Manager, Why Marriage Matters-PA

(credit: ruthelliscenter.org)

(credit: ruthelliscenter.org)

When I think about the breadth of blacks in this country and the difference so many have made, I’m not drawn to the typical civil rights leaders that we heard about in elementary school for black history month. I think about the everyday people who are making a difference to the average person without even realizing the ripple effect of greatness. I think about the quiet heroes like Ruth Ellis.

Ruth Ellis isn’t the typical choice you would see as far as Black History Month candidates go. Born in 1899, she didn’t have multiple degrees and she wasn’t known for being, “well-spoken.” But what she did have was a big heart that she opened to as many black LGBT people as she could during a time where neither blacks nor gays seemed to have a place in our country.

At the age of sixteen, Ellis came out in 1915 and is widely credited as being the oldest out lesbian in American history, living to be 101. Though she claimed she never really came out of the closet, she was always just herself; she didn’t know what being in the closet meant. Her mother died when she was young, so being a black lesbian with no role models of what being a woman or being gay was, proved to be more than difficult.

Though she struggled academically, Ellis completed high school in a time where less than seven percent of black girls were able to finish high school. The daughter of a freed slave who taught himself to read and write and would eventually become the first black mail-carrier in Illinois, Ellis followed in her father’s footsteps of self-education. She taught herself photography and printing and became the first woman to own a printing business in Illinois.

Beyond being openly gay in a time where almost no one was openly gay and being a black female business owner at a time when women just won the right to vote, Ruth Ellis created perhaps one of the first safe-zones for black LGBT people in the U.S. (Read more about the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s LGBT Issues)

Ellis and her partner bought a home together in Detroit which became known as “The Gay Spot” by those in the black gay community. From 1946 to 1971, this safe space provided a place to go for blacks unwelcome at local bars and was a refuge to blacks who were “out” before there was a Stonewall. Over the years, many of the couple’s guests were students, and Ellis personally assisted many of them with money for college, books, and food. This home was also open to black gay men coming from the South in need of a place to establish themselves.

Despite growing up with limited exposure to the world, Ellis provided for the basic need of love and acceptance to so many in the area. Eventually Ellis would be acquainted with lesbians from all over the country and participate in homegrown activism across many states. In 1999, the Ruth Ellis Center was established in her honor with a mission to “provide short and long-term residential safe space and support services for runaway, homeless, and at-risk lesbian, gay, bi-attractional, transgender, and questioning youth.”

Ellis was a pioneer without having her name splashed in the news and without a following, moving her personal mission along. She was an everyday black woman, being herself and supporting her community. I can only hope to be half the woman for half as long as Ms. Ellis.

Now that I think about the simple yet extraordinary life of a woman we know little about, I realize this is how I view the ACLU and the people we stand up for, simple yet extraordinary. Those we fight for aren’t flashy and you probably only hear about them when a lawsuit is being brought against someone pretty vocal, but that’s not what creates change. Leaders don’t have to talk about how great they are or prove their worth; they do what’s right because it’s the right thing to do. Even if you’ve never heard of her, Ruth Ellis was a leader and so are all of the overlooked and underappreciated, everyday heroes who have stood up and done the right thing, simply because it was the right thing.

This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.

Melissa Morris comes to the ACLU-PA with more than 15 years of experience as a program developer and trainer for community based organizations and within higher education.

What War on Marijuana?

By Ngani Ndimbie, Community Organizer, ACLU of Pennsylvania

(credit: aclu.org)

(credit: aclu.org)

HOT TIP: If you want to smoke marijuana without consequence, be sure to find the biggest house in the whitest neighborhood of your Pennsylvania town and smoke there.

I’ve been hanging on to this not-so-secret secret for 10 years now. But I’ve decided to get the word out for the sake of Pennsylvania’s youth and their futures.

Growing up in an affluent, predominantly white neighborhood, I got to experience the injustices of the War on Marijuana firsthand.

Picture me as a 17-year-old in a smoky basement of some large home in my Squirrel Hill neighborhood on a weekday after school, hanging out with my friends, feeling calm yet conflicted. On the weekends, I regularly volunteered by registering young voters and talking to my peers about issues and policies affecting them, like the War on Marijuana. When I was conversing with other black youth, they’d occasionally offer a story about how the enforcement of marijuana laws affected them, their friends, or their neighborhoods.

And in my neighborhood? What War on Marijuana? Marijuana was (and is) readily available and regularly enjoyed in Squirrel Hill and other predominantly white neighborhoods throughout Pennsylvania. But Pennsylvania’s war on drugs is not being waged on the white and wealthy.

Last summer, the ACLU released a report titled “The War on Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests.” It is the first report to ever look at nationwide, state, and county arrest data by race.

Arrest data show that in Pennsylvania, black people are 5.2 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. And in Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located, black people are 5.7 times more likely than white people to be arrested for possession.

In Philadelphia, our recent analysis of city-wide marijuana arrest data, performed as part of our stop-and-frisk lawsuit, showed the same pattern. 84.4 per cent of people arrested in Philadelphia for marijuana possession were black (43.4 per cent of the population) while white people (36.9 per cent of the population) comprised only 5.8 per cent of the arrests. Oh, and guess who was arrested in the predominantly white areas of the Philadelphia. Yeah, mostly black people.

Law enforcement across Pennsylvania has clearly focused on race rather than behavior when enforcing marijuana laws. Equal enforcement of the laws would see police on every block and in every neighborhood.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania is calling for decriminalizing personal possession of marijuana. It’s time that we stop this expensive, racially biased, ineffective War on Marijuana in Pennsylvania.

This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.

National Commission on Voting Rights – Philadelphia

By Ben Bowens, Communications Associate, ACLU of Pennsylvania


On February 6, at a National Commission on Voting Rights (NCVR) public hearing organized by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, voters, activists, and voting rights advocates gathered at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia to share their experiences of the voting challenges they continue to face in Pennsylvania. The ACLU of Pennsylvania was an organizing partner for the event, and I had the privilege to attend and take pictures of the proceedings. Like many in attendance I was blown away by the impassioned testimony given by both the invited guests and audience members who braved the elements to voice their concerns. I was equal parts disappointed by the lack of local media, which should have come out in full force to attended such an event.

In my opinion, the most compelling testimony of the evening came from members of the deaf community who showed up in numbers to make their voices heard. We often speak of the need for translators at polling placing for the Hispanic and Asian community, but rarely do we consider the needs to deaf and blind voters.

“When a deaf person comes in to vote, how are they going to be helped,?” said Samuel Hawk, a deaf voter who signed while an ASL translator spoke. “There has to be an ASL interpreter inside polling places, and now there’s no one there.”

Hawk was one of several deaf and hard of hearing voters who testified during the public testimony period. Challenges facing persons with disabilities was among a diverse range of voting rights and election administration issues addressed by expert witness panels and general public witnesses representing civic engagement groups, government watchdogs, student and labor union representatives and civil rights organizations including advocates from the African-American, Asian-American and Latino community.

Check out my full slideshow of the event below and for more information, visit the Lawyers’ Committee’s website.

More information on the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s voter ID challenge can be found here.

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