• Ethan Liebross

The Most Important Hand I Have Ever Shaken

I went into Princeton the other day: possibly my favorite little town. I love the architecture. I love the preppy and sometimes eccentric-looking people you'll find walking down Nassau St. I love the general feeling of awe that comes with being in a place where presidents and true American icons have stepped foot. Don't tell anyone, but sometimes I even love to pretend to be a Princeton student: backpack, khakis, polo, and I'm all set.

The night before, I heard that Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), was scheduled to speak on campus. I knew I couldn't pass the opportunity up, so the next day, I hopped in my car by myself and took the forty-five-minute commute down the backroads into Princeton.

I have to admit; before attending, I didn't know much about the ACLU and the work they do. I decided to go for one reason and one reason only: to learn something new.

Anthony Romero is a six-foot-something, slim man with a shaved head. He has a friendly looking face, like someone who you could learn to trust. From the back of a lecture hall, he kinda looks like Jeff Bezos.

The hall that we were in seats approximately 150 students. This night, it got filled will half students and the other half 65+. Still a bit of a mystery why.

Mr. Romero began the speech by talking about his experience at Princeton University in the late 1980s. He reflected on his first day on campus with his grandma and mom, who helped tidy up his room.

On campus, Romero was an activist. He wasn't afraid to protest, get into riots downtown, and have conversations that would last through the late hours of the night.

“Pushing boundaries doesn't happen by itself” he lectured.

He filled us in about his job at the ACLU. He talked about how politicians and people, in general, like to talk the talk. He says if you believe in justice —prove it. “Proving it” is how Romero got to where he is at today.

Then, he transitioned the discussion to the current state of affairs in the U.S. According to Romero, all political leaders have a commitment to be progressive. Still, the efforts today are only pushing people back. The room erupted with applause, almost like we were at a DNC conference.

As citizens, we like to blame the man (or woman, but let's face it, probably a man) in charge. I see it happen all the time. Anytime something happens political, we are quick to whistle-blow and say something like, "It's all Trump's fault." Trump is not alone, and his decisions are not (all) solitary. Even liberal-viewed Romero admits, "He [Trump] didn't start the parade even though he jumped in the way to lead it."

At the ACLU, I learned they have several things at the top of their agenda: immigrants' rights, voting rights, and abortion rights. Possibly the most contentious topics of 2019.

Out of the 207 crimes that the Trump Administration is charged with by the ACLU, 87 deal with immigrant rights. The ACLU has been fighting for immigrant rights before the media has had time to catch on. For example, they worked with clients when 300 parents were separated at the southern border, while the media only started picking up speed by the time 1800 kids were separated.

Voting rights are also crucial to the ACLU. Recently, 25 states have made it harder to vote if you are older, younger and if you are a person of color. In one case, college IDs not being considered valid forms of identification caused a national uproar. In North Carolina, a judge stated one effort to restrict voting rights was “targeting minorities with surgical precision.”

The ACLU spent 10 million dollars in the last election to expand the right to vote. The result: 1 million former felons got the right to vote. In three states, 2 million additional people.

The last agenda item was abortion rights. Even after 19 years, I'll admit I still don't know where to lean. So, instead of clapping during this portion, I decided to listen passively.

Since 2011, states have enacted 400 restrictions, which make it harder to have an abortion. The ACLU brought to court 25 of those restrictions and blocked 17 of them. Romero called it an "all hands on deck" moment in time.

Romero says there is no issue more critical right now than criminal justice reform. According to Romero, we need to depopulate the nation’s prisons fast. We have the highest per capita rate of people incarcerated than any other country. I’ll agree, that’s insane!

One part of the talk that I liked was his comments on bipartisanship. He and the rest of the ACLU—believe it or not, they’re considered nonpartisan—think that they have a responsibility to demonstrate to Americans that bipartisanship is still possible. He gave some examples as proof. When Trump helped free Alice Johnson, convicted drug trafficker, the ACLU applauded in response. Surprisingly, at one point in time, the ACLU was willing to work alongside son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner.

Next, Romero talked briefly about ACLU membership. Thanks to Trump, there has been incredible growth in membership. Since the election, it has gone up to 1.87 million people from 400,000! The average ACLU member has also come down by 24 years.

Romero left the audience with some final words. In the coming 2020 election, he warned that it's vital that we make our candidates focus on the issues that matter most. "Vote like our rights depend on it," he warned. Lastly, we can't get discouraged now by the current state of politics in America. We can take a break and turn off the TV every once in a while. But we must return and pay attention to what's going on.

“There’s something enormously noble about being in this fight at this time” - Romero

After the talk was over and the heated twenty-five minute Q and A settled down, I roamed down to the front of the room. Surprisingly no one was in line to shake Mr. Romero’s hand, so I stepped right up with a big smile, and my hand stretched out in front of me. There is no doubt that his hand was the most important hand I have ever shaken. Maybe one day I’ll meet presidents and world ambassadors, but for now Romero takes the lead.

Originally published: March 11th, 2019

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