2016 American Civil Liberties Union of California Conference & Lobby Day

by Laura Johnston Kohl

Over the three days from April 9-11, 2016, I was able to take a bus up to Sacramento for an American Civil Liberties Union Conference on some current bills in the California legislature. We arrived from San Diego, a diverse group, and joined about 250 others in an information-driven conference about current legislation. It was an awesome experience to be surrounded by so many advocates of human and civil rights.

One of the most exciting parts of the conference was the participation by young activists, passionate about the issues we face both here in California and across the country. The majority of attendees were 30 years old and younger. That is an important statement  because our society has so many distractions for young people.

We gathered on Saturday night for a welcoming reception with the Conference opening on Sunday. The keynote speaker was by Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson, uncle of Oscar Grant, and Co-Founder of the Love Not Blood Campaign, a part of the US Human Rights Network.

The murder of Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale Bart Station was made into an important movie “Fruitvale Station.” We were able to see the movie after Sunday’s briefings. The “Fruitvale Station” summary from their website: Though he once spent time in San Quentin, 22-year-old black man Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) is now trying hard to live a clean life and support his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) and young daughter (Ariana Neal). Flashbacks reveal the last day in Oscar’s life, in which he accompanied his family and friends to San Francisco to watch fireworks on New Year’s Eve, and, on the way back home, became swept up in an altercation with police that ended in tragedy. Based on a true story.

After the keynote address, we had workshops to choose from. I attended two: “My School, My Rights: Finding the School-to-Success Pipeline” and “Homeless policy: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”

“My School, My Rights: Finding the School-to-Success Pipeline” discussed the rights of our California students. We continue to push students out of school and into the school-to-prison/deportation pipeline. Unsurprisingly, the students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ students, are some of the most vulnerable. This is not solely an ACLU issue. This hits every California resident. We spend more per incarcerated person than we do for education for our students. This pipeline guarantees an enormous prison population on an ongoing basis.

First of all, it is an atrocity for those students who need a different approach than simply kicking them out and preventing them from getting an education. I am a retired teacher and know first-hand about difficult students. I will not pretend that the lives of teachers and fellow students are not impacted by these same students. But, if we switched the priority we have now of fully funding an immense prison industry, while under-funding education, we could fix this. We need the resources in education – in counselors, smaller classrooms, student support, diversity of classroom teachers, and workable interventions.

This pipeline also takes our tax money to fund prisons. If we used it up front, to fix the problem, we would not need to put a non-stop bandage on it by locking up our youth. That is not fixing the problem; it is not a solution. We are mindlessly fattening the wallets of those who “bank” on a continual flow of inmates.

Another important issue with the pipeline is that it affects disproportionate numbers of minorities. These people are taken away from families, breaking up important family units, and leaving children without parents in the home. The money could be much better spent in supporting the adults so that they could cope with their issues and remain with their families.

The pipeline is a lose-lose situation for everyone except for the private prison industry or the top echelon within the prison system. We taxpayers are hit with insufficient education funding, AND paying for outrageously burgeoning prison population.

The second Workshop I attended was on California homelessness. We are NUMBER ONE in the country in the number of homeless. In California, we have criminalized homelessness – which is ineffective and ridiculous. If a person is homeless, what is the likelihood that the person can pay a fine, or get an attorney to fight a case in court? What is the point? Furthermore, California has forgotten that the lack of affordable housing puts people out on the street. Our humanity is at stake. Many of the homeless are physically or mentally disabled. Many are veterans. Shelters have had a limited impact because they may help in isolated communities, but the pandemic of homelessness is not addressed. We MUST have affordable and Title XIII housing, without 8- and 10-year waiting lists. When looking at the other “advanced” nations, our lack of heart is profoundly discomforting.

The workshops I didn’t have a chance to go to included subjects like “Countering Anti-Muslim and Anti-Immigrant Discrimination,” “Policing, Criminalizing, and the Fight for Safe & Strong Communities,” and a look at the “Electoral Campaign Best Practices 101.” I will certainly have to go back next year.

After the Workshops, we stayed to watch the movie “Fruitvale Station” with our new friends. It was a great day to direct our advocacy for the upcoming year. I so appreciate the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego, and the ACLU around the country, for the protection it gives us, while reminding those around us who might have FORGOTTEN about the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

On Monday, we studied current bills in the California legislature and went to visit the ELECTED members of the legislature – ELECTED – meaning that WE put them there.

Here are the Bills we studied and asked our elected officials to support:

AB2466 (Weber): clarifies a CA law on voter eligibility. Various CA counties interpret it differently. This clarifies that ANYONE currently incarcerated with a Misdemeanor conviction is eligible to vote. PERIOD.

SB1286 (Leno): Provides for enhanced community oversight on Police misconduct and Serious Use of Force. Right now, unlike many other states, California has restricted the disclosure of internal investigations of police officers. If a person files a complaint, or if a person is harmed (or even killed) by the police, the record is kept private. Over 80% of Californians feel that the public should have access to findings of misconduct. This lack of transparency creates distrust of the system. No one can verify that any complaint is taken seriously. We need transparency to see that there IS a workable system to review the behavior of police officers.

SB433 (Mitchell): protects innocent people from civil asset forfeiture abuse – IF a person is not charged with a crime, a police officer may not confiscate property (cash, personal property, car, etc.). There is a growing problem with personal assets being confiscated, requiring the uncharged person to go through the court system to get the belongings back.

Every part of the 3-day event was inspiring and informative. We were able to rub elbows with other visionaries and activists for three days. And, we got to practice our SPEAK UP muscle. We need to be vigilant in letting our elected officials know our demands. By “demands” I mean IF they want our votes, they need to represent us. It is a good reminder. They have certain responsibilities being our elected officials. WE also have certain responsibilities – including keeping our eyes on them and letting them know our issues and positions. I am proud to be affiliated with the ACLU of San Diego and of California.

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