ACLU's Faiz Shakir on the power of protest: "The courts move because people move them."


MIAMI — After nearly 100 years, the ACLU is stepping beyond the courtroom and into the world of grassroots organizing.

On Saturday, the ACLU is launching People Power, a nationwide platform that will turn volunteers, experienced or not, into community leaders and organizers set on opposing President Donald Trump's agenda. With a new war chest of over $24.1 in donations since Inauguration Day, and 160,000 people already signed up to begin work, the ACLU will have a veritable army to back up its legislative efforts going forward.

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The first item of the agenda is called the "Freedom Cities" campaign, calling on local organizers to find their community's local law enforcement official — the, precinct commander, sheriff, etc. — and work with that official to ensure the community is safe for immigrants.

Before the nationwide announcement, with over 2,300 house parties across the nation expected to tune in, we spoke with the ACLU's new national politics director, Faiz Shakir, to talk about the agenda going forward, lessons learned from the Bernie Sanders campaign, the impact organizing can have on courtroom decisions, and more:

Mic: Since Trump's inauguration, there's been a kind of renaissance of traditional grassroots organizing.

Faiz Shakir: And I'd argue we have a bit of a new model here. The model we've employed — which we pioneered during the Bernie campaign and used a bit by NextGen — is a model where heavy digital organizing and involvement is getting to engage in offline organizing, using some new methods like using peer-to-peer texting to get people engaged in a rapid response way. 

We've got the traditional suite of stuff like the nationwide maps and the emails that'll tell you what's going on in town. But we'll be able to mobilize people quickly around actions because of our ability to reach them fairly quickly.

There's no shortage of latent energy for mobilizing, but the other, often neglected side of mobilizing is base expansion.

FS: I think the ACLU's credibility goes beyond traditional red and blue. People associate us with principled advocacy for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and that's carried us through to more constituencies than just a traditionally liberal group. 

Our first call to action is harder and more difficult than your traditional act. We're the ACLU. We're going to ask you to do things that have meaningful impact, but also are consistent with our mission of being an organization devoted to the rule of law, the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

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A few of you guys at People Power have come over from the Bernie Sanders campaign. What are the key take-aways of grassroots organizing in the Sanders style?

FS: If you think of people who gravitated toward Bernie, it was people who believed in a cause greater than themselves. Most people working for him didn't initially think they were making their resume look good or that they'd be White House chief of staff. And the same spirit that motivated them is the spirit I'm looking for now. I like that in a DNA of an activist: That you're shooting for the moon and trying to do something great, and something hard.

I would also say, gently, that the Bernie campaign was a bit chaotic in it's management at the top level, and out of that came, essentially, the volunteers took over and became the lifeblood of the campaign. Because of the way that unfolded, the people who did the digital organizing for Bernie acquired a unique experience of seeing what motivated volunteers could accomplish when given real tasks.

You're talking about big organizing, and shooting for the moon — raising expectations as high as you can and seeing what you can accomplish in the middle. So what about the agenda in broad strokes? Trump is unpredictable — how do you build a cohesive platform organize against a moving target?

FS: You're definitely right — I would not have anticipated that I'd be talking about the perjury of an attorney general or the Emoluments Clause in the first 50 days of a presidency. And yet here we are at the ACLU talking about it.

We've got to come up with compelling actions that move people. Where we've landed with our Freedom Cities campaign is the idea that we need to understand where our power lies in confronting Trump in order to have meaningful impact to change the course of the country if he wants to move us in the direction of hate and intolerance. 

As I think about that, I say, "Where is our base? Where is our political power against Trump?"

If we can get law enforcement officials, mayors and city commissioners to change the policies of their communities, that's going to have impact. Similarly, down the road, as we build our Freedom Cities and he wants to beat up on Muslims, we could go to school boards, and make sure they had in place measures to preserve the safety of Muslim kids in schools, or LGBTQ kids in schools. 

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This kind of platform — the guide, the local leaders — it's similar to the work being done by Indivisible at town halls across the country. But Indivisible is more of a toolkit without a specific agenda.

FS: And with a focus on Congress, with an emphasis on showing people the ways they can show up at town halls and get in touch with their representatives. I love everything about what they accomplished, but our mission is a bit different.

The quiet undertone at many of the protests I've covered has been a focus on 2018. Obviously, the ACLU isn't setting forth an electoral agenda that'll be involved with candidates. But many coalitions see themselves as building toward that purpose, and are undoubtedly going to pivot toward a political agenda.

FS: Right, we're not going to get into the business of electing or defeating candidates.

But how can you keep those two things disentangled, the legislative versus the political?

FS: As a matter of principle for the ACLU's rules and procedures, we're committed to not being a partisan organization. So you won't see calls to action in that realm. 

We're going to be solely focused on the ideas and agenda that Donald Trump is putting forward, and how we can beat back those specific plans. So as long as the government will be doing things contrary to our values, we're going to provide an alternative.

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The ACLU's come into a war chest of donations that gives you a new capacity to expand. How much of that is for this new initiative, and how do you plan to build this out?

FS: The crowds have funded us, and the crowds will get something in return in the form of grassroots mobilization. It wouldn't have been possible to build this as quickly as we did with as much staffing resources if we didn't have the influx of resources. Those resources that came in the wake of the airport protests were a driving impetus. 

We were already moving toward this People Power program, but as those protests happened, it became absolutely clear to everyone in the organization that mass mobilization and grassroots organizing had to be a part of the ACLU's agenda in the immediate term. It gave us firepower.

I spent that weekend at JFK, largely with the lawyers, and one of the powerful things was to see how inside/outside activism works even when the inside and outside forces — the lawyers and the protesters — weren't coordinated in tandem.

FS: David Cole, our national legal director, told me that there's no doubt the airport protests affected the success of the cases in the courtrooms. When the judges were listening to arguments across the country, they were keenly away of the fact that the public demanded a certain solution — to knock down the executive order. 

Grassroots activism can impact legal rulings. That's been the case for marriage equality — the Supreme Court flipped over time from deeming it unconstitutional to constitutional. The same has happened with a number of other doctrines.

The courts move because people move them.