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.
Governor Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and their Republican allies in the Legislature were unsuccessful last year in their quest to pass a bathroom bill banning transgender people from using bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice, and prohibiting cities from passing laws to expand anti-discrimination laws to cover transgender people.
The Texas Legislature meets every other year for six months. Its next session starts in January 2019. “They’re not even in session and they’re trying to repeal protections,” said Marques, who describes herself as a cisgender lesbian, meaning her gender identity is the same as her birth gender.
“We wish they met for two months every six years,” Marques said.
Emmett Schelling, director of the Transgender Education Network of Texas, discussed transgender sexual identify, leading the clinic with Marques.
“I’m a transman. If I’m attracted to women then I’m straight, but it’s very intersectional because you have many transgender people who are queer, straight or bisexual,” Schelling told 10 people sitting in plastic chairs in a small office room.
“I’ve heard the term pansexual. Help,” a black woman said.
Marques laughed and said the meaning is straightforward. “An easy way to explain it is that pansexuals are attracted to people, not any gender,” she said.
Burke, the ACLU of Texas executive director, said its membership has quintupled and its “email action list” has grown from 75,000 to more than 155,000 since Trump was elected.
Lisa Weisemann, 71, said she joined the email list after Trump’s inauguration. She meets each month with a group planning to petition the Legislature to redo Texas’s voting district maps. “The way it’s arranged right now of course is advantageous to the Republicans,” she said.
Weisemann said she tends to keep quiet at the meetings. “I don’t know anything about political activism,” she said. After the boot camp, she said a community organizer teach-in led by Astrid Dominguez had been her favorite part of the three-hour camp.
Dominguez was the ACLU of Texas’ immigrants’ rights policy strategist for nearly five years before she was promoted this month to director of the ACLU Regional Center for Border Rights in El Paso.
“I’ll be working to fight the Draconian policies that have increased the militarization of our border region,” she said.
Gov. Greg Abbott signed an anti-immigrant bill last May that authorizes Texas police to ask anyone they detain about their immigration status, similar to the “papers please” law that Arizona passed in 2010, before parts of it were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Represented by ACLU attorneys, the cities of Houston, Austin, San Antonio and El Cenizo, a small border town 16 miles south of Laredo, with Maverick and El Paso counties sued Texas to try to block Senate Bill 4 shortly after Abbott signed it in May.
The cities won a preliminary injunction from U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia on Aug. 31, the day before SB4 was to go on the books. The injunction blocked the main thrust of the bill: that jailers honor requests from federal agents to hold undocumented arrestees to be picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.
The judge also enjoined that part of the bill that subjects law enforcement officials to fines of up to $25,000 and removal from office if they refuse to comply with ICE detention requests.
Texas appealed to the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans, claiming the law is needed to keep dangerous criminals off the streets.
A three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit granted Texas’ emergency motion to stay parts of the injunction in September. The panel ruled that Texas can force local compliance with ICE detainer requests, but found that SB4 does not require law enforcement agencies to honor all ICE requests to hold arrestees.
Another Fifth Circuit panel heard arguments on the constitutionality of SB4 in November and has yet to issue a ruling.
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, FAIR, a nonprofit that wants less immigration, legal or illegal, said police officials should be punished for sanctuary city policies meant to protect immigrants from deportation.
“If this state has adopted a policy that they’re going to cooperate with federal law enforcement officers and agencies, then the local officials who are empowered to carry out the law have to be held accountable,” he said.
Mehlman said he’s not surprised the ACLU is trying to block SB4.
“If you look back over the ACLU’s record, their effort is clearly geared to ensuring that our immigration laws cannot be enforced. They will simply do anything they can to thwart and obstruct the enforcement of U.S. immigration laws,” said Mehlman, FAIR’s media director.