Left Return

Once burdened by debt and internal politics, a rejuvenated Texas ACLU is back mixing it up with those who dare to trample on the U. S. Constitution.

"This sounds like enthusiastic booster bullshit," says Blackburn, "but it's not. But we are going to build a model of how you resist something like this. You get the community organized and mobilized. You keep the story in the news. You keep it moving, and you sue the shit out of everybody."

It is an attitude shared by many in the new Texas ACLU. Together, they are behind several aggressive legal initiatives around the state, including:

" The Police Accountability Project: Civil liberties activists in Austin are hopeful that the Austin City Council will approve the creation a Civilian Monitor's Office, which will field and investigate allegations of police brutality and wrongdoing. The office would have full access to the Austin Police Department's internal affairs files and have the right to interview volunteer witnesses. The head of the office would earn a salary of $111,000 and oversee an annual budget of up to $500,000. However, the office would not have subpoena and enforcement power, and all disciplinary decisions would still be made by the chief of police.

Executive director Will Harrell hopes to put some firepower back in the Texas ACLU.
John Anderson
Executive director Will Harrell hopes to put some firepower back in the Texas ACLU.

State ACLU board member Ann del Llano has been instrumental in the negotiations with the city and the Austin police union over the creation of a civilian monitor. The push, says del Llano, came about after several controversial deaths of civilians at the hands of Austin police officers. As she told the Austin American-Statesman in October, "We think most cops are great, but we need to get rid of those stinkers."

In addition to the monitor's office in Austin, as well as others in Texas cities, the Police Accountability Project is pushing for state legislation to make police disciplinary files open to public records requests, and for a bill requiring all Texas police departments to keep racial profiling statistics, something that is already being done in Houston and Arlington. (Representatives of the Austin Police Association did not return calls from the Houston Press.)

" Prison guard brutality lawsuits: Through volunteer attorneys such as Yolanda Torres of Dallas (see "Unnecessary Roughness," by Steve McVicker, October 12, 2000) and Robert Rosenberg of Houston (see "What Really Happened to Rodney Hulin?" by Michael Berryhill, August 7, 1997), the ACLU is aggressively investigating the alleged abuse of inmates by Texas Department of Criminal Justice guards. Both trials got under way this month.

" School prayer in the Santa Fe Independent School District: Last June, in a 6-3 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court widened the separation of church and state by deciding not to allow school-sponsored prayers before football games in Santa Fe. The winning argument was presented to the high court by Galveston attorney Anthony Griffin on behalf of the ACLU, which had agreed to represent four families opposed to school-sponsored prayer. Despite the high court's ruling, however, this fall's gridiron battles in Santa Fe were marked by so-called spontaneous group prayers. Obviously, say ACLU officials, the school prayer battle is far from over in Santa Fe and other cities around the state.

"We are seeing in Texas explicit attempts to bring the clergy into the classroom," says state board member Kahne. "Even after the Supreme Court has said you can't bring church onto the football field, we are still seeing attempts to bring the clergy into the classroom. We are going to be fighting this for the next decade. It's not going to go away easily. But what is important is that we are making that fight."

" The Texas Stand Down Project: In August Harrell announced the formation of the ACLU's anti-death-penalty group, headed by Steve Hall, once a spokesman for former Texas attorney general Jim Mattox, who oversaw numerous executions. In addition to seeking a moratorium on the death penalty, the project will push for legislation that gives juries the option of sentencing convicted killers to life without parole. The project also is seeking to abolish executions of the mentally retarded and will scrutinize the court-appointed legal representation of indigent defendants across the state.

"I believe if we had something called life without parole, and as a criminal defense lawyer I could tell a jury that that was an option, there would be less people getting the death penalty," says Gladden. "There would be no need for it. There are some who fear that there will be just a bunch of people getting life without parole, and there will still be just as many people getting the death penalty. I don't believe that."

" Banned and challenged books in Texas public schools: The ACLU continues to bring attention to books barred or questioned by school districts across the state. There are some surprising volumes on the list: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is outlawed by both the Houston and Fort Worth ISDs. Joshua school officials will not allow students to read One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Snow Falling on Cedars is outlawed in the Boerne ISD.

" Homeowners' rights: In perhaps one of the oddest alliances in some time, ACLU board member Kahne is representing longtime Houston activist and gadfly Geneva Kirk Brooks in her fight to rein in the power of homeowners associations. Brooks is perhaps best remembered as a leader, in the late 1970s, of a group known as Citizens Against Pornography. Although her position then probably would have put her at odds with the ACLU, these days she and Kahne see eye-to-eye about the evils that allegedly can be wrought by homeowners groups.

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