Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Flush With Cash, ACLU Trying to Deliver on Anti-Trump Agenda

  • Plan includes ‘Resistance Training,’ ‘carpet bombing’ lawsuits
  • Organization seeks to rally volunteers to take to the streets

Florida nurse Kim Ambrose, who has a mixed-race teenage daughter and a Cuban-immigrant husband, said President Donald Trump’s treatment of minorities and women inspired her to sign up to pay $10 a month to the American Civil Liberties Union, despite her modest salary.

"I’m very frightened about what’s happening in the government," Ambrose, 52, said outside an ACLU rally on Saturday at the University of Miami, wearing a "Not My President" T-shirt. "I can’t sit back and do nothing."

Rally hosted by the ACLU at the University of Miami, on March 11.

Photographer: Luis M. Alvarez/AP Photo

Fueled by anger with the Trump administration among a wide swath of voters, the ACLU is having its moment. It helped to block Trump’s initial ban on travelers from seven predominately Muslim countries. Membership has tripled to 1.2 million and online donations alone have topped $80 million since Trump’s November election. Now pressure is on the organization to deliver.

“My deepest concern is that this resistance can’t be a six-month event,” said Faiz Shakir, the ACLU’s national political director who previously worked as a senior adviser to former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid. “It has to be a four-year endeavor. Making people believe it’s worth it is the challenge.”

The White House didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.

‘Carpet Bomb’

The ACLU’s senior leadership met in Miami Saturday to set their plan in motion: harnessing the energy of people like Ambrose into a grassroots “People Power” initiative while deploying their lawyers to -- in the words of executive director Anthony Romero -- “carpet bomb” the Trump administration with lawsuits to hobble its agenda.

“Litigation on a broad range of issues and jurisdictions can rob the Trump administration of its momentum, gum up their machinery and make it hard for them to move down their to-do list,” Romero said in an interview.

The Miami event was unlike any the ACLU has done before: two hours of "Resistance Training” for thousands of volunteers in attendance. Thanks to a team of digital experts -- many of whom were hired from Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign and the Obama White House -- it was broadcast online to as many as 200,000 others, organizers said.

Held at the University of Miami’s cavernous Watsco Center, the ACLU event had the feel of a megachurch revival, with flashy staging, concert-worthy lighting, foot stomping and “People Power!” chants on command. ACLU lawyers took the stage to describe the organization’s legal efforts defending the rights of immigrants, minorities, women and the LGBT community.

Other speakers urged the volunteers to take to the streets, providing advice on their rights to protest and to take photos and videos of law enforcement activity in progress. The volunteers were encouraged to bear witness if they believe abuses are occurring -- for instance during immigration raids at apartment complexes or workplaces.

Engage Locally

The ACLU speakers also advised the audience members to engage local politicians, like sheriffs and city council members, because cities and towns have a great deal of constitutional autonomy and can be deployed to confront Trump’s policies.

Chezare Palacios, a 27-year-old aspiring lawyer, said he came to the ACLU rally because of his opposition to Trump’s travel ban. For him, he said, getting involved is a matter of being “on the right side of history.”

“As the son of Cuban immigrants, I understand the desire to go somewhere with more opportunity, not just for yourself but for the next generation,” Palacios, who lives in Miami, said after the rally. The travel ban “goes against everything we stand for.”

Not everyone is thrilled by the ACLU’s recent successes. Greg Scott, spokesman for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian organization, said the ACLU’s “elevated influence in the judicial system" should alarm Americans who value individual freedom over state power. His Scottsdale Arizona-based organization often clashes with the ACLU in court.

"The ACLU isn’t the objective guardian of freedom it claims to be, but just another partisan organization," Scott said. “For years, it has been on the wrong side of liberty."

There were no signs of dissent at the ACLU’s event in Miami. Padma Lakshmi, star of Bravo’s "Top Chef,” added some celebrity sparkle, telling the audience that the Trump administration was squandering the nation’s reputation. “Our country has been, until now, admired the world over as a beacon of hope because of our tradition of welcoming people,” said Lakshmi, who immigrated to the U.S. from India.

Shakir said he hired people from Sanders’s campaign because they had pioneered a model of organization that “worked incredibly well.”

“They believed in a cause that was greater than themselves,” he said. “The ACLU is in that same moment.”

‘Urgent Time’

Melanie Garunay, 28, was hired as the ACLU’s digital organizing director, having previously ran the email program on the digital strategy team for Obama’s White House. She said she is driven by how quickly Trump is pushing forward with his agenda.

“This is an urgent time,” she said. “We decided we need to be as broad and as fast as possible, and that’s what the technology allows us to do.”

The ACLU was among the organizations that filed suit to block Trump’s Jan. 27th executive order on travel on the grounds that it was unconstitutional and discriminated against Muslims. On March 10, it joined the battle over Trump’s revised ban, filing an amended complaint in federal court in Maryland alleging the new directive still discriminates against Muslims despite changes intended to insulate it from the legal claims that doomed that last one.

The Trump administration says the travel ban is vital to ensure national security and isn’t directed at Muslims but rather at countries known for terrorist activity.

More suits will come, Romero said, especially on behalf of undocumented immigrants who may have their rights violated, as well as litigation to protect reproductive rights and LGBT rights. Still, Romero sought to temper expectations, saying his 300 litigators are outnumbered by the thousands of lawyers working under Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

"I think that while people are very enthusiastic and vigorous in their support, they also understand that this is the fight of our lives, and any organization coming up against the full fire power of the U.S. federal government has steep odds to overcome," Romero said, in an interview.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.