When Anthony Romero joined the list of guest speakers for the President’s Lecture Series at UM, the dean of the School of Journalism, Larry Abramson, asked for the honor of introducing him. Romero has been the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) since September 2001, and Abramson had spoken with him over the years while working on stories for NPR.
“I did a lot of work on privacy and surveillance issues, and the ACLU is pretty central to that,” Abramson said. “Since he’s the head, they’d often give him to me when I called.”
The ACLU also defends freedom of speech issues, which makes them handy resource for journalists. Media coverage of the ACLU’s projects shows that the benefits can go both ways.
“The moments when I really despaired were when I felt like no one was listening, that the huge, important issues were not getting the attention they deserved,” Romero said. “The most important thing is to engage in these issues, especially for students, because these issues determine your future.”
During his lecture, Romero focused on the civil liberties pertaining to the current state of the prison system in America. Romero shared the stories that he learned from visiting prisons like the Los Angeles Country Men’s Jail, which he rated worse than Guantanamo Bay. He said the problems were worse than just overcrowding and violence, but included issues such as restrooms that were inaccessible to disabled detainees and outing gay prisoners by making them wear powder-blue jumpsuits. As one such man told Romero, “Every day’s open hunting day here.”
“Prisons are very strange things and that’s why I force myself to go to them. It’s our tax money put to our purported use, like building roads or bridges, but prisons are such removed from the public psyche and public sight that we have to crack open these black boxes so that they’re less opaque,” Romero said. “I often find my sleep troubled after I’ve been there.”
Romero also spoke about how the prison system lacks opportunities for people to redeem themselves, especially if they’re poor. Even a one-time, minor crime could stick someone in an endless cycle of growing dept and imprisonment. He said, “It’s hard to imagine a more Kafka-esque, Catch-22 type situation.”
Yet his motive for talking about so many specific people remained the same. “I wanted to talk about real people and use their stories to paint a picture of what’s wrong and what needs to be fixed,” he said.
“I like reading legal briefs because lawyers are like journalists in that they like to tell stories,” Abramson said. “The ACLU’s gotten engaged in the issues, fostered national debated and they speak true to power. I think students can learn from them and take things one step further.”
However, while the ACLU takes a stance on the issues, it doesn’t take a stand on political parties. Romero said that working across political boundaries and tackling issues from multiple viewpoints was crucial to their progress. Romero warned the audience to be wary of whistle-dog metaphors like ‘act tough on crime’ that can imply situations are intractable or that something is inherently wrong with the individuals swept under those labels.
“When you want to glaze over rhetoric and statistics, imagine all those faces and don’t allow yourself to fall into the cynicism,” Romero said.
“Anthony’s a very good speaker,” Abramson said. “He made some very eloquent arguments, and I think he found a vein of sympathy in the Missoula community.”
By Jana Wiegand