The following remarks were delivered at the ACLU of Southern California annual Bill of Rights Dinner, November 8, 2015, Beverly Wilshire Hotel, Beverly Hills, CA.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
These are the most powerful and important words in American history. These words matter because for 239 years people have done their damnedest to make America lives up to their meaning.
This same spirit drives us at the ACLU and pushes us to work — no matter what — to guarantee everyone’s rights.
Fellow ACLU members and most welcome guests, we’ve experienced so much success this year here in the Southland, across California, and throughout the nation.
The ACLU convinced L.A. County to stop jailing thousands of people with mental illness and treat them in community health settings that are more effective and humane.*
The ACLU lobbied California into the digital age. State privacy laws predated the internet and offered no protection for emails or text messages. Thanks to the ACLU, California now has the nation’s best digital privacy law.*
And as you heard the ACLU, our honorees, and our partners fought a long, 44-year battle to establish marriage equality!*
But there’s still so much work to be done.
We’ve lived through deeply wounding days when it comes to police violence. And this is what I’d like to talk about tonight.
So far this year, police in the U.S. have killed 965 people.
Let’s put that number into perspective.
Look around this room. We are half that number. Half.
The number of people killed by police in Germany and the U.K. combined is . . . two.
This is a crisis. But it’s not just about deadly policing; it’s about deadly and biased policing.
I could cite many brutal facts.
I could tell you that one in five people killed by police were unarmed.
I could tell you that people of color make up less than 38 percent of the population but a startling two thirds of the unarmed people killed by police.
I could tell you that just this year, police have shot and killed one unarmed black man every five days.
But you don’t need statistics to know the painful reality.
You know some names — Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Natasha McKenna. You remember some better than others because you’ve seen sickening images of their arrest or final moments.
These deaths show just how painfully far our nation remains from equality. And they bring us back to the same crossroads.
Are we going to accept a deeply divided nation where only some can trust the police?
Are we willing to accept that growing up black in this country often means vulnerability to the brutality of racism — even by police — and even at school?
Will we put an end to the senseless killing of our people?
My friends, the answer is clear. We cannot remain coldly silent and ignore what’s happening.
We all bear responsibility for what the police do. Our society gives police tremendous power over people’s lives. They act in our name. When they kill, they act in our name.
What can we do?
We need to speak up to make clear we are deeply disgusted with how often police kill.
We need to speak up to make clear we have the right — the obligation — to condemn police brutality.
We need to speak up to challenge the conspiracy of silence around police abuse.
We need to take on those forces that keep police beyond scrutiny that accuse anyone who calls for reform of being anti-police.
There’s a world of difference between demanding accountability and declaring “war on cops,” and we cannot be bullied into silence.
We need to speak up until our collective roar can no longer be ignored.
Ultimately, we must demand policing consistent with the idea that all people are created equal.
This may sound unrealistic. But the policy solutions are concrete.
Fundamentally, policing must be opened up to public view.
Law enforcement wants to operate in secrecy. But we live in a democracy. It’s clear who polices the police — we do — the people.
We have a right to know what the police do in our name. So videos from police cameras must be made public.
Case in point: On March 1, LAPD officers shot and killed Charly Keunang. His name isn’t well known. That’s because the LAPD within hours took to the airwaves to justify the shooting. The LAPD said Charly grabbed an officer’s gun, which caused three others to open fire.
So, of course, the media and the public largely accepted the official story and moved on.
But this looks like a whitewash.
Two of the four officers wore body cameras. But LAPD won’t release the video.
A few reporters have somehow seen the video. They say it provides no evidence Charly tried to grab anyone’s gun.
So, all we really know is officers shot Charly six times, and we may never know the truth beyond that because LAPD may never release the video.
We must reject this trickle down version of transparency!
Police say “openness is key to building trust,” but their words ring hollow when they don’t loosen their grip on secrecy.
If police want trust, they can’t demand it; they must earn it.
Video is just one piece. Another is discipline for misconduct.
In California, police misconduct investigations are sealed from public view under the most restrictive laws in the country.
Consider this: if an engineer working for the state department of transportation gets disciplined for using his work truck and computer for personal business, that’s open to the public.
But if a police officer gets disciplined for choking a man to death, that’s hidden. Does that make any sense?
Police officers are the public employees with the most power over people’s lives. This should make them the most accountable to the public, not the least.
Now, according to a statewide poll, these key reforms enjoy support from three out of four California voters.
But achieving reform won’t be easy. The police unions are powerful and many politicians put police interests ahead of the public.
We can change that. We are changing that.
This year, the ACLU sponsored key bills to measure and curb racial profiling and the use of force.
It looked like both bills would fall short. The police unions stood opposed. Their main objection: there’s no need to collect data because there’s no pattern of racial profiling or excessive force. It’s bad enough that police want to ignore reality. They want us to ignore it too!
Thanks to the ACLU, both bills have become law, making California’s police reporting requirements the strongest in the nation.*
Now, don’t get me wrong. The ACLU doesn’t always get Sacramento to do the right thing. But that’s when we are resourceful in protecting people’s rights.
If police won’t release their videos of misconduct, we’ll make it easier for people to take, preserve, and publicize their own. We want the police to know the whole world is watching! Take a look.
On April 30th, the ACLU launched Mobile Justice, a free phone app that allows people to record police misconduct and automatically forwards the video to the ACLU.
Our bold ambition to have 100,000 people download the app in 12 months. We must’ve struck a chord: in just six months, almost 180,000 people have downloaded Mobile Justice.
In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of the day when “this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed” that all people are created equal.
That day hasn’t come yet. But we must remember, before laying out his vision, Dr. King called people to action by describing “the fierce urgency of now:”
Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
There was fierce urgency then—there is fierce urgency now.
We cannot just wait for things to get better with time.
We cannot be patient about injustice.
We must strive toward justice.
Tonight — right now — you can take one important step: support the ACLU.
For nearly 100 years, the ACLU has worked to make sure the promise of equality covers everyone, those intentionally left out at the nation’s founding and those who weren’t even considered for protection.
That’s because the ACLU knows two things: we all deserve equal rights and we are all connected.
The struggle of people of color to live in freedom without fear is our struggle. The fight of women to get equal pay for equal work is our fight. The battle of gay, lesbian and transgender people to be protected from being fired because of who they are is our battle. The future of poor people, immigrants and people with disabilities — their future is our future.
I ask you now, ladies and gentlemen, join me, join us, the ACLU. Let’s embrace the urgency of no— for Walter, Freddie, Natasha, and Charly; for those whose names we may never know; for everyone. And let’s make America live up to its declaration that all people are created equal.
Hector Villagra is executive director at the ACLU of Southern California.
* These victories were made possible by the ACLU and its partners in coalition.