Despite facing numerous challenges, the American public should look towards the fight for justice, equality and civil liberties with optimism, American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony Romero ’87 said in a lecture on Wednesday.
“We believe that everyone is entitled to live a life of dignity," Romero said. "We all have the right to live, the right to love, the right to speak your mind and the right to be treated fairly when you’re walking in public domain. These are the best aspirations that any group of human beings can come up with."
Romero said he was particularly gratified with the past decade in LGBT rights. While a student at the University, gay men and women were convicted of crimes even for consensual activity inside the students’ dorms, he said.
In the decade after 2003 when the Supreme Court made states decriminalize homosexuality, many states went from decriminalization to full rights and privileges for any loving couple, Romero said, adding this outplay of events is a testament that law and policymakers will catch up to public opinion, especially those of the millennial generation.
“Your generation has the power by size and ability to change American politics in a very substantial way,” Romero said. Nonetheless, even after winning the right to marry, numerous obstacles still confront the LGBT community, namely, the lack of employment protections, he noted.
Romero also called for reforms for mass incarceration.
Over 2.3 million people are behind bars in the U.S., giving the U.S. the highest incarceration rate in world, he said. In addition, one-third of African Americans will find themselves in the justice system before reaching mid-adulthood, he noted.
Mass incarceration began with President Richard Nixon’s war on drugs, which brought a healthcare issue into the justice system, Romero said. The idea soon became a favorable platform item for politicians.
However, in recent years, with protests for "black lives matter" and “nerves pushed by instances of police brutality,” there is a rising political will to depopulate prisons, he said.
Romero also called for the University to divest from Correction Corporation of America and the GO Group, both of which are for-profit organizations vying for state contracts for prison facilities and immigrant detention centers. Describing them as "a complete scandal," Romero said they create incentives for the perpetuation of mass incarceration.
Nonetheless, Romero expressed occasional dejection at thepolitical pushbackin the drive for civil rights.
“I get discouraged because powerful interests will remain powerful at the expense of the communities we care about," he said. "Fear is an enemy as bigotry is. We can dispel fear, but bigotry is much harder to dispel."
Romero cited issues of immigration and abortion as particularly challenging.
“Our country was once built with a pride that we are a nation of immigrants, yet now, immigrants are used as scapegoats,” Romero explained.
The exploitation of the immigration debate has been a means of building talking points for political candidates in the South and Southwest, Romero said. In addition, the issue is compounded by racism, as seen in the Arizona law requiring drivers to demonstrate legal papers when pulled over by the police, he added.
“It’s very hard to move the political ball forward when the Republicans and the Democrats are on opposite sides of each other,” Romero said. Even with immigration reform and the deferred action status, states can still deny driver’s licenses and in-state tuition for public universities to those who fall under the DREAM Act, issues the ACLU is tackling, he explained.
The ACLU has also filed a case in Seattle for unaccompanied minors from Central America to have access to counsel to slow the tide of deportation, he said.
In terms of abortion, Romero said the demand for protection and reproductive rights among a generation never without these services has to remain unequivocal.
Nonetheless, Romero said his work is not without moral struggle. During his career, Romero worked with Fred Phelps, a homophobic minister who staged protests during burials of fallen soldiers.
“As odious as it was, ACLU supported these protests," he said. "We can’t shut down these protests by law because if we had done so, somewhere down the line, the government can just as well shut down ‘Black Lives Matter 2020.’ ”
Romero also explained a controversial case in the 1970s in which Neo-Nazis tried to march through a community populated by Holocaust survivors. Following the ACLU’s decision to support the march, half the membership resigned and imperiled the organization financially.
“The idea of universal rights is that they are for everyone, not just those who we like,” Romero explained. “It's hard to defend the right of someone you hate.”
The event was sponsored by Princeton Progressives and the College Democrats. It took place at Friend Center Auditorium 101 at 7:30 p.m.