“Pagamos los justos por pecadores” – interview with Anthony Romero, ACLU

April 5th, 2016


Created almost 100 years ago, ACLU – American Civil Liberties Union is one of the oldest NGOs in the US. The organization is supported by more than 50.000 members and has 50 offices spread across the country. Its goal is “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United State”.

I just interviewed Anthony Romero, ACLU’s director for the last 14 years, who told me how the organization is being challenged and is trying to adapt to contemporary societies.

1) Do you think NGOs are affected by the changes in the pace of information, the role of individuals as political actors and the crisis of representation of the state (the 3 main tensions I am analyzing in this research)?

Yes, totally. The pace of information translates into the need of NGOs to respond much quicker. The “turn around” and the response have to be quicker. We have to have much more clarity about our priorities – as it is impossible to track every development of every issue we work on – and to polish our many channels of communication with our societies. If you take too long to react, it is too late.

As for the role of individuals outside organizations, yes, there is much more individual kind of activism that enable and empower people. This is not an entirely new phenomenon, as we had spontaneous movements before, but now they are much more empowered with the new technologies. People expect to be able to voice their opinions and to get an answer, and quickly. For instance, our blog is today a place of dialogue and not a one-way communication. This is why we have started to develop tools to empower individual as political actors. One example is the Mobile Justice App – to film police conduct and send it to us. This increases the demands dramatically and you have to answer one by one. Now we have a “virtual intake”, 24 hours a day.

Finally, the crisis of representation of the state…I think it is more a perception of the whole ecosystem we are on. The crisis of belief in governments affects NGOs. A lot of individuals tell me “I don’t think any of these will matter”.

2) And how can NGOs face all these challenges?

Today we have to be have more clarity of what our priorities are, to be more transparent on what we want to do, how we are going to do it and if we achieved the results we wanted or not. We almost have to prove to people that they should not be that cynical about our work. “Pagan los justos por pecadores”. In other words, the cynicism around the state representation and effectiveness also affects how people see NGOs.

3) So we should worry that some people don’t trust NGOs?

Yes. ACLU’s membership is decreasing year after year, since the election of president Obama. A lot of people saw Bush as “crisis years” and they wanted to associate themselves to an organization to make a difference. This has changed with Obama. The only membership organization I know that the membership is increasing is Planned Parenthood – as there is a big buzz around abortion.

To face that we have been investing more on the “local”, states’ level, and to communicate better around the sense urgency. People are worried about what happen near them and not necessarily what is happening in Washington and at the Supreme Court.

4) How is currently the balance between legal and political work at ACLU?

One of our priorities is to do more political work, lobby, advocacy. Sometimes it is better to prevent a law from occurring than to litigate against it afterwards. It helps also to mobilize constituencies. We don’t need the public to bring lawsuits: I need lawyers and clients. On political work, we need the public and people can make a difference. If we can use constituency, members and supporters to help to push our agendas changes can happen.

Three years ago, we had 250 litigators and 70 working at staff with advocacy, with legislators at state and national level. In the last years, the political team is really growing.

One challenge for this is funding: the political work can sometimes not be paid with the grants we receive from big foundations – either because of the grants’ focus or due to legal and taxes constraints. So the political work is severely underfunded and we are trying to convince funders of its importance.

5) What else could be improved in the way ACLU is funded?

Most of the funding is still very project specific and take too long to be approved. An example: there were 31 governors that, after the San Bernardino case, said they were not receiving Syrian refugees anymore. So, 24 hours latter, we brought lawsuits against 3 states and won. If I had tried to convince my funders, I would have lost the opportunity and the timing. I decided to act right away, using some of the general operating support. By trying to be so strategic, having goals, results, indicators, … funders don’t react to opportunities or challenges we can not anticipate. And this is key today if we want to have impact.

6) Do you believe less in the rule of law and justice institutions than you use to?

No. It has not changed. The law has always been an effective tool for change and also has always been used by our opponents. Today we are more sophisticated and smarter. What is different is that today there are many more groups using the law against us. Fifty years ago there were not many US groups on the right of the political spectrum. Today we have many organizations from the right: the law is being used to pursue a conservative agenda. American Center for Law and Justice and Alliance Defending Freedom are two good examples. They are anti-LGBT cases, anti-abortion, anti-affirmative action at the Supreme Court, for instance. They are pretty much focused on the family and traditional values. We are in opposite sides.

7) And, I am curious to know what to expect from the future US president, even if this is not part of my research…

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have tapped to an angry populist movement in their respective parties. Is it not clear that any president will really be able to change the system in the way they are promising. I am worried that this kind of moment and investment in the cynicism towards institutions can be bad after all. What will happen when these promises based on cynicism against the State are broken? No one knows.

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