Obama’s Civil Rights Report Card
Anthony D. Romero, a former public-interest attorney, is the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union. He is the ACLU's sixth executive director, and the first Latino and openly gay man to serve in that capacity. In 2007, Romero and co-author Dina Temple-Raston published In Defense of Our America: The Fight for Civil Liberties in the Age of Terror.
Question: In what ways has the Obama administration most disappointed you?
Anthony Romero: Look, we are still hopeful that President Obama will keep the promises he made as candidate. There are some early signs that we’re not going down the right path. He told us he will reject the Military Commissions act and yet now he’s talking about retaining the Military Commissions as a way to deal with some of the detainees at Guantanamo. Huge mistake: you can’t fix that, you’ve got to scrap it, you’ve got to throw these individuals into established courts. You can’t tinker at the edges of the Military Commissions act.
He told us he would restore the rule of law, and yet now he’s telling us that he wants an act of preventive detention regime—which is essentially a nice word for holding people indefinitely without charge or trial. He can’t do that, that’s not the American way. We’ve never allowed that for hundreds of years. America cannot hold people who we are suspicious of merely because they may pose a threat. If you can’t prove it, you can’t take away someone’s fundamental right to liberty and do so in a way that doesn’t convict the person in a court of law. It’s anathema to the fourth and fifth amendment.
You have the president telling us that he was going to make good on some core issues around gay rights and questions around equality in America that seem to be very slow in coming. Saying that, “I’m going to give gay and lesbian people their full rights as individuals” and yet defending the Defense of Marriage act, it doesn’t compute. If those promises were made, you can’t defend the Defense of Marriage Act, you can’t drag your feet on “Don’t ask, Don’t tell.”
I think one of the concerns we have is that the President is saying, “I have all these other issues that are on the front burner.” The economy, the wars, healthcare: we all get that. We’re all Americans. We all care about people dying in wars, we all care about healthcare, we all care about the economy, but we can’t wait to fix all those problems before we get to some really important problems that he alone and his government can fix.
You can’t sequence in a way that’s going to fix the economy, healthcare, the environment, and the wars, and then will turn to gay people and the administration of justice, and detainees ,and torture and abuse. We’re never going to get there and everyone knows that it’s the first 18 months of the administration that will allow him the latitude to make decisive breaks with the past, and unless we occupy that initial window with some really bold, decisive actions, we’ll find ourselves in a new reelection campaign with pundits on both sides saying, “Defer these issues further until the second term.”
A dream deferred is a dream lost, and time is not a luxury we can afford ourselves when it comes to core issues like due process, human rights and equality; that’s why we’re hoping that bringing his feet to the fire in these issues that could get him to do the right thing.
Recorded on: July 20, 2009
ACLU Director Anthony Romero sees plenty of work ahead for President Obama.
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