WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union wants to take over your town. On Saturday, the organization is launching a nationwide campaign to push local governments to become “Freedom Cities” by adopting a series of policies to make them safe havens for immigrants and refugees amid what the group has dubbed President Trump’s “mass deportation agenda.”
Trump’s administration is currently asking for cooperation from local law enforcement for the president’s crackdown on illegal immigration and on immigration from certain predominantly Muslim countries. The ACLU’s new strategy is designed to pressure city officials to reject that request. According to an ACLU strategy memo, the group is pushing local authorities to force the federal agencies focused on immigration enforcement to jump through a set of legal hoops that will “impede objectionable policies the president is pursuing.”
These proposed requirements include making U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection officials obtain a judicial warrant before asking local officials to detain anyone, blocking those officials from accessing people in local custody for “interviews or other investigative purposes,” preventing federal agents from asking local officials about someone’s immigration status, and blocking surveillance or interrogations based on profiling. While the Trump administration has suggested local officials who do not cooperate with federal immigration enforcement may be breaking the law, the ACLU memo argues the specific Freedom Cities policies are “on firm legal ground.”
And along with the lobbying and legal work that is typically the ACLU’s bread and butter, the organization is trying something new as it pushes the Freedom Cities agenda. The ACLU is providing supporters with a blueprint for activism to apply pressure on local authorities to adopt the plan. It’s a clear departure for the organization. For nearly a century, the ACLU has been nonpartisan and focused on legal battles. The organization’s foray into grassroots organizing and activism is the brainchild of Faiz Shakir, a 37-year-old former Senate aide who was hired in January as the group’s national political director.
“People have known us for, ‘See you in court,’” Shakir said in the Freedom Cities memo. “I hope now they’ll also know us for, ‘See you in the streets.’”
The ACLU’s Freedom Cities campaign will begin with a “Resistance Training” live-streamed from Miami, Fla., on Saturday afternoon. Supporters will be given materials instructing them on how to get meetings with local officials who are “key pressure points.” The ACLU is also advising activists on specific arguments to make in order to pressure them to adopt the policies. These initial meetings are just the beginning. The ACLU has also launched a website, People Power, which will feature maps highlighting future Freedom Cities meetings and other events. In addition to keeping people involved in the immigration policy effort, Shakir said the site will allow supporters to suggest ideas for future efforts.
In an extensive conversation with Yahoo News, Shakir described the genesis of his strategy to make the ACLU into “the leader of the resistance” against Trump.
Shakir recounted how he sat down with ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero a few weeks after Trump was elected last November to discuss the future of the organization. He pointed to a spike in donations and online signups the group received in the aftermath of Trump’s win as evidence people were eager to see the ACLU take on the president.
“People have voted again after the election. They voted with their pocketbooks and with their email addresses to tell the ACLU, ‘Tag! You’re it! You’re the leader of the resistance whether you like it or not. We’ve decided on our behalf. The people have voted and we’ve voted for you, the ACLU, to be the leader,’” Shakir said he told Romero.
Shakir also said he suggested the increased engagement with the ACLU was a sign people wanted the organization to expand beyond its traditional activities and provide supporters with an opportunity to participate. Romero agreed with this vision to bring activist organizing under the ACLU umbrella and brought Shakir on board. They felt emboldened by the spontaneous protests against the first draft of Trump’s ban on travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries, and by the court rulings against it in suits brought by the ACLU and others. The Freedom Cities campaign is the first major official salvo in this fight.
Jumping into the anti-Trump resistance may seem like a departure from the ACLU’s tradition of nonpartisanship. However, Shakir and his team frame the activist direction as an extension of the organization’s longstanding efforts to defend individual liberties. They say the group’s grassroots activism will be focused on protecting groups such as immigrants, refugees, religious minorities, and the gay community, whose rights they see as being endangered by Trump’s policies.
And the ACLU isn’t exclusively aligning with progressives. Trump and many right wing activists have made the case liberals have restricted freedom of speech in their push for political correctness. Shakir pointed to the ACLU’s recent defense of conservative firebrand and Trump supporter Milo Yiannopoulos as proof the group isn’t abandoning its roots as a nonpartisan defender of civil liberties.
“The willingness to break from orthodoxy is definitely a marker of the ACLU,” Shakir said.
Shakir also insisted the organizing efforts won’t detract from the organization’s core mission. In fact, with the recent deluge of donations, Shakir said the ACLU will actually be “scaling up” its legal activities.
Shakir’s job with the ACLU is to lead the national and state legislative advocacy teams. However, he told Yahoo News he’s spent “seventy five percent” of his time planning the ACLU’s foray into grassroots organizing. On his first day, he handed Romero a budget for the operation and they quickly brought on a team that included several veterans from the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.),
“It’s been a sprint from the day I got here,” Shakir said.
Shakir came to the ACLU after spending nearly four years in the office of former Democratic Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. In a brief conversation with Yahoo News, Reid, who retired this year after three decades in Washington, praised Shakir as “superb.”
“In the many years in Congress, I’ve had almost 1,000 people work for me. … In the top five is Faiz,” Reid said, later adding, “I miss him almost every day.”
Shakir has spent much of his time in recent weeks in a conference room at the ACLU’s Washington office, where he and his team are planning the Freedom Cities launch. This makeshift war room features two large monitors, one playing cable news and another with a series of Twitter feeds. The tables were strewn with computer monitors, phones, and food cartons. On Thursday afternoon, Shakir, who wore a dark suit and a pronounced five-o’clock shadow, sat at one of the tables twirling a pen as he fielded phone calls and talked with colleagues.
Trump’s election has seen a surge in grassroots progressive activism with social-media-driven street protests and a deluge of phone calls to Washington. However. Shakir said the ACLU is organizing “more detailed and complicated” efforts.
“It’s not just like, hey, pick up your phone and call your member of Congress,” Shakir said.
Shakir didn’t entirely dismiss the value of the calls progressives have been placing to Congress in the wake of Trump’s win.
“It’s training a generation of activists to get involved and do something. That’s good. It’s also, the fact that they’re making calls and bringing down the congressional switchboard is causing senators to take note. They’re aware that that’s going on. Is that changing behavior maybe mildly? We’ll see,” Shakir said.
However, Shakir predicted people would have “only so much appetite” for calling Capitol Hill.
“At some point, you might get depressed or cynical about your efforts, or just simply, quite frankly … want something better to do with your time,” he said.
In Shakir’s mind, the ACLU and its experienced staff had an “incumbent responsibility” to present a road map for more effective activism. And he predicts the Freedom Cities campaign and its call for specific policies will have a much more dramatic impact than the protests against Trump we’ve seen thus far.
“What I’m going to be asking people to do is real work. It’s real work,” Shakir explained. “It’s like taking their time, hours out of their lives to do something that, if they do it together, will have a meaningful impact in resisting Trump.”