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Until the land of the free is really free

By Aaron Blevins, 12/06/2012

ACLU honors ‘champions’ of civil rights

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The ACLU of Southern California (ACLU/SC) has long been a champion of civil rights, and on Monday, the organization honored several people who continue to strive for equality for all.

Singer and songwriter Usher, and actress Jane Lynch, were among the honorees at the Bill of Rights Dinner. (photo by Aaron Blevins)

ACLU/SC held its annual Bill of Rights Dinner at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills less than two weeks prior to the 221st anniversary of the ratification of the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The local affiliate’s executive director, Hector Villagra, said the continued pursuit of civil rights is just as important now as it has ever been, as people have tried to roll back decades of progress.

“This year, we have been challenged,” he said. “We have been challenged by those who want to halt the progress of freedom. …These threats have been felt by many people across the country.”

The organization, however, has several members and supporters who are up to the challenge, such as Erwin Chemerinsky, who received the Ramona Ripston Liberty, Justice and Equality Award.

Ripston described Chemerinsky as one of the finest constitutional law scholars in the country. He is the dean of UC Irvine’s School of Law, and has litigated large civil rights cases in the Supreme Court on behalf of the ACLU.

Chemerinsky said recent times have produced a “stunning” era for civil liberties; however, there continues to be “enormous” threats to American liberty and Constitutional rights.

“There’s an unprecedented assault on the very idea of a wall separating church and state,” he said. “For the last twenty-five years, there’s been massive incarceration, especially of men of color. Economic inequalities are greater in our society, including educational disparities, than they’ve ever been before. It’s easy to try to take solace in the fact that Barack Obama is in the White House, rather than his predecessor. But we should not be lulled by that.”

The ACLU attorney said the Obama administration has violated its fair share of civil liberties — in ordered drone strikes that violate international law, in its use of the state secrets privilege and in its use of torture.

“It’s President Obama who signed into law statutes that authorize massive, warrantless electronic eavesdropping and even the detention of American citizens without due process,” Chemerinsky said. “I say all of this because the reality is now, more than ever, we need the ACLU.”

Rabbi Leonard Beerman, the founder of the Leo Baeck Temple, presented the first-ever Legacy of Liberty Award to Susan Adelman, Claudio Llanos and their family. They operate the Adelman Foundation, which provides grants to organizations that support peace, civil rights and liberties, immigrants’ rights and economic justice, among others.

“There are many good people who will give to progressive institutions,” Adelman said. “There are few who will give to projects and organizations that push the limits and sometimes frustrate us — Occupy Wall Street, Code Pink, the ACLU. But it is precisely this kind of innovation and creativity that opens minds. Once a mind is open, it’s impossible to close it up again. All sorts of ideas can leak in.”

She said those organizations are charged with challenging, bothering and otherwise enraging the status quo. Adelman referenced an Adelman Foundation project that will use technology and social media to help people understand and defend their rights.

“The Adelman/Llanos family believes we will see significant social change only if there are people outside the walls of power reminding those inside reliably, publicly and vociferously of their promises and commitments,” she said. “We believe in those who are willing to be loud or impolite, to look silly or to get arrested. They are critical to forging the country we tonight dream of having.”

ACLU/SC told several stories of recent clients who have undergone their own civil rights dilemmas. The organization told of Zoey, a transgender student who had been harassed by students and staff at her elementary school; Tarek Hamdi, who waited 10 years for his citizenship application to be denied; Duncan Roy, who was put on an 89-day immigration hold when the maximum is 48 hours; Greg Valentini, who fought in Iraq but is now homeless; and Sandra Neal, whose son was brutally beaten by sheriff’s deputies.

Villagra, the executive director, also referenced national stories, such as a 93-year-old Philadelphia woman who feared she wouldn’t be able to vote because she couldn’t afford an ID; the Wisconsin educators who lost their right to bargain with “one cruel penstroke” by the governor; and a pregnant Mississippi waitress who needs access to healthcare, but the state only has one family planning clinic, which is facing closure.

“Each of these individuals could have easily given up, but they did not,” Villagra said. “They could have listened to those who said they wouldn’t win, but they chose not to give up. They could have given up to the doubts that whispered in their ears, ‘No one will care about you.’ But, no, they stood up for their own rights, and by doing so, for the rights of many, many others.”

He referenced a John F. Kennedy quote from 1961: “Since this country was founded, each generation has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty.”

“In the face of these grave challenges, what kind of testimony will this generation give to its national loyalty? Is this generation prepared to lead freedom forward? I stand here tonight hopeful,” Villagra said.

Additionally, several celebrities received the 2012 Bill of Rights Award for their activism and service. The three honored were talent manager Scooter Braun, who has steered influential celebrities toward charitable causes; Jane Lynch, an outspoken LGBT activist; and Jay Roach, a producer and director who has created an endowment to fund USC students’ humanitarian efforts. Comedian Michael Coryell was the master of ceremonies.

 

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