By Hector Villagra, Executive Director
It’s a hard video to stomach, I know.
Seeing it always reminds me of what Dostoevsky wrote:
"The degree of civilization in a society can be measured by entering its prisons."
I think the point is this: if you want to judge the soul of a society, you see how it treats the weak, the vulnerable, and, yes, even the scorned. That's the true test of how good and just a society is.
Tonight, let’s consider three stories, and let’s hold a mirror up to our society.
Seth Walsh was thirteen, and he found obstacles at school. Seth loved dogs and Pokémon, riding his bike and listening to music. But Seth couldn't see past the pain at school.
Seth came home from school one day and told his mom he was going out to the backyard to play with his dogs. His mother later found him hanging from a large tree – unconscious. He died days later.
Seth had endured years of harassment for the way he walked, the way he talked, and the way he dressed – even before he came out. It only got worse after he came out – he got tripped, he got pushed, he got shoved, he got stalked. Teachers knew, school officials knew, but they did nothing about it.
Our military service men and women hear the call of duty and they answer it. They go off to fight for their country in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. They expect to struggle to survive on the streets of Kabul and Baghdad.
They do not expect to struggle to survive on Main Street when they come back home.
Los Angeles now has 8,500 vets living on its streets. The VA runs a property in West LA that covers a massive 387 acres of land – that’s half the size of central park.
Prominent families deeded that land to the federal government -- in 1888 -- for one purpose – to provide a permanent home for disabled U.S. soldiers.
Today, the VA provides no permanent or even long-term housing for veterans. Instead, the VA has leased out nearly one-third of the property – to house rental cars, buses, baseball fields, a hotel laundry, and a dog park.
Robert Rosebrock, a 68-year-old Vietnam veteran, protested for two years at the property. Outraged, he decided to hang the U.S. flags upside down – a distress signal. The VA repeatedly cited him for this and took the flag down.
Last, as the court-ordered monitor of the LA county jails, we have long pointed out the inhumane conditions there. Four years ago, Judge Dean Pregerson, who oversees the case, visited the jails. He saw grossly overcrowded jails that provided inmates limited – and often late – access to medical care and little – if any – exercise or other out of cell time. He said the jails violated basic human values.
In the past few years, we have become more and more worried about the rising level of deputy-on-inmate violence in the jails. This past year, as you saw in the video, civilians – including chaplain Paulino Juarez – saw deputies brutally beat defenseless inmates.
Some say that if you break the law, you deserve whatever you get. But the great majority of people held in la county jails are simply awaiting trial – they have yet to get their day in court and we must presume them to be innocent. And we, as a society, reject cruel and unusual punishment. No civilized society makes beatings at the hands of jailer’s part of the penalty for breaking the law.
My fellow card-carrying members of the ACLU – I presume you are all members – we are blessed to call Los Angeles home. We live here because it's a world center. Because our to-do options include surfing in Malibu, hiking the Griffith Park trails, or shopping on Melrose and, let's not forget, it is December and – typically -- 75 degrees.
We pride ourselves in calling Los Angeles home, but we must ask ourselves some questions.
Do we need any more kids to take their lives before we all agree that our schools must stop and prevent bullying?
What right does the government have to punish a vet – a vet who has risked life and limb for his country – for hanging the flag upside down?
Can we call ourselves the home of the brave when so many of our brave are homeless?
Do we accept Rodney king-like beatings – week in and week out in the jails – just because there is no videotape to remind us of the brutality?
Ideally, the government would always respect individual rights. But we know reality is different, far different.
We know all too well that individual rights – although guaranteed by our constitution – are never finally and completely secure. Our rights are timeless, but we must defend them in the here and now.
So, as we celebrate the 220th birthday of the bill of rights, the best gift we as Americans can give it, and keep on giving it, is a healthy defense.
We at the ACLU, fight to defend the bill of rights for everyone.
We arm people – on street corners and in community centers – with knowledge of their rights and how to use them.
We fight at the city council, we fight at the Board of Supervisors, we fight at the state legislature, we fight in congress. And, when needed, we fight in the state courts; we fight in the Federal courts.
And we will fight so long as there is a bill of rights to fight for.
This year, we pushed for the state to pass Seth’s law and we strengthened anti-bullying policies in California schools.
And we launched the Seth Walsh students' rights project to help teachers, counselors, and principals know what they can do to address bullying, to investigate incidents of harassment, and to make sure all students have a safe learning environment.
And we sued the VA for Robert Rosebrock, we got his citations dismissed, and we upheld his right to free speech – to hang the flag upside down.
And we sued the veterans' administration for failing to take care of our wounded veterans when they come home.
And, of course, we have been very loud in asking for reform of the jails and a full-blown federal investigation as well as the resignation of Sheriff Lee Baca. He has said he didn't know about the violence in the jails. This is no excuse; it's an indictment.
People just like us founded in 1923 – not by super humans, but the ACLU of Southern California. People with the same beliefs, the same convictions, and the same hopes for southern California.
We will continue the fight our founders started. And we will succeed because we have the brightest and most dedicated team of individuals defending our rights. Staff whom brave men's central jail to report on what's going on behind closed doors. Staff who stay out until 4am to monitor the occupy la evacuation. Staff who spend their nights and weekends gathering signatures so we can abolish the death penalty in California. Staff who do all they can to help lead freedom forward.
I want to thank our staff for the battles they have fought, and the sacrifices they have made. If our staff members would please stand, I’d like to give you the chance to help me thank them.
We are a dedicated but small group, and we alone are not nearly enough to do this work.
We rely on you. We rely on your activism – marching, chanting, writing, petitioning and advocating to those in power.
We rely on your donations, your support, and sometimes even your prayers.
We rely on people like our distinguished honorees. People who put the precious principles -- of liberty, justice, and equality -- into practice. Through their teaching and writing. Through their music and films. And through their advocacy and philanthropy.
Most of all, we rely on the courage of those who see wrong and say, "no, I will not stand for this!"
Please help me salute one such person.
Robert, would you please stand up?
We at the ACLU of Southern California, live with our bull horn volume turned up high, our backpacks filled with pens and petitions, and our faith in the bill of rights held close in our hearts.
The courage that it took Robert and Paulino to take a stand against injustice – it lives in all us.
So, I ask you – all of you – to call upon that courage and help us lead freedom forward.