HOUSTON (CN) — Energized by the anti-immigrant and anti-transgender policies of the Trump administration and Texas Republicans, the American Civil Liberties Union is enlisting volunteers at boot camps across Texas.
The ACLU of Texas hosted its first boot camp in Houston last year, and has held several others, in Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and Brownsville, staff member Mark Humphries said.
More than 50 people showed up for a boot camp last Saturday at an office building in Houston. In three teaching sessions over three hours, staffers told people how to volunteer as an ACLU “neutral observer” of police at protests, how to talk about transgender rights without being offensive and how to advocate for community change.
Humphries said that no ACLU staffer at the boot camp would go on the record and told reporters not to record the teach-ins.
Boot campers ate cookies and drank coffee and politely applauded an opening speech by ACLU of Texas Executive Director Terri Burke.
“This past year has marked a turning point in our collective fortunes like we’ve never seen. … This country needs the ACLU in ways that it’s never needed the ACLU before,” Burke said.
Quoting Martin Luther King’s famous 1963 letter from Birmingham jail, Burke said today’s protesters are “bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”
Staff attorney Trisha Trigilio advised boot campers on the dos and don’ts of being an ACLU legal observer. Volunteers are given blue vests so they can stand out in crowds, and work in teams of two, one of whom films the rally, the other taking notes.
“You’re absolutely allowed by the Constitution to record police,” Trigilio said. “If the officer says, ‘Stop recording me,’ it might be appropriate to say one time, ‘I’m engaged in First Amendment activity.’ If the officer keeps ordering you to stop recording, then stop filming. We don’t want you to go to jail.”
Trigilio, 31, said the ACLU does not have the resources to bail volunteers out of jail or defend them in court.
“If you get arrested, you’ll be useless to us. … You’ll be tainted, because it will look like you were part of the protesters,” she said.
Trigilio said the ACLU trains its observers to stand apart from protesters, not to talk to the press, to be polite to police, but “not chummy” with them, and advises them not to work at events where they strongly identify with the protesters’ causes.
“You might get caught up by speeches and get distracted from your job,” she said.
Trigilio is lead ACLU of Texas counsel for a federal class action challenging a Houston law that bans camping in a tent in public.
Houston officials say their goal is to get homeless people off the streets and into shelters and housing programs.
Rebecca Marques, the ACLU of Texas’ LGBTQ-rights specialist, said in a boot camp session Saturday that the ACLU is gearing up for a Texas Senate hearing in February, where Republican lawmakers will discuss ways to repeal anti-LGBTQ discrimination ordinances on the books in Dallas, El Paso and other cities.