Abdi Soltani, executive director of the ACLU of Northern California (Jason Doiy / The Recorder)
The American Civil Liberties Union’s response to Donald Trump’s election has been a defiant “See You in Court.” The president-elect’s pre-and post-election comments about immigrants, abortion rights, stop-and-frisk policing and flag-burning have made him a natural foil of the 96-year-old civil liberties organization.
The Recorder recently checked in with Abdi Soltani, the executive director of the ACLU of Northern California. The affiliate has approximately 30 attorneys and legal professionals working across offices in San Francisco, Sacramento and Fresno, and Soltani expects them to be very busy as Trump takes office.
Q: What was your reaction as the presidential election results came in the night of Nov. 8?
A: On my mind were the extremely troubling campaign promises Donald Trump made throughout his campaign. We have now elected a candidate whose policy proposals, should they be enacted, will be plainly unlawful and unconstitutional. This summer, the ACLU released the “Trump Memos,” analyzing Donald Trump’s positions and finding that his proposals violate the First, Fourth, Fifth, Eighth and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
Q: What happened when you arrived at the ACLU office Wednesday morning?
A: We gathered for a staff meeting and we reflected on the election together. On one wall of our conference room we have a mural that illustrates decades of critical battles for civil rights and civil liberties in California. We talked about our clients, who over the years have faced government overreach and oppression and have been willing to challenge the violation of their rights in the court of law. Their courage, their tenacity and their history of standing up for their beliefs will inspire us in the months and years to come.
Q: What has been the response from the public?
A: It’s time to fight. People are looking for ways to get involved. In the days since the election, over 1,100 people have signed up to volunteer at the ACLU of Northern California affiliate alone. We’ll also be working with volunteers to connect them with local organizations that are doing crucial work and could also utilize the skills and time of folks who are eager to help.
We recently did a survey of our online supporters, and they reported being most interested in seeing calls to action right now. It’s incredibly inspiring to see that Californians are ready to fight for each other and for the rights of people throughout our country.
At the national level, we have seen a renewed sense of urgency from hundreds of thousands of Americans to protect civil liberties. This is the greatest outpouring of support for the ACLU in our nearly 100-year history. All of this support will be put to good use protecting the rights of all Americans.
Q: ACLU executive director Anthony Romero has said that challenging Trump policies will be “the fight of our lives.” What does that mean for the Northern California office?
A: In the days and weeks to come, we will be working to ensure that Californians and people across the country know their rights and how to exercise them. It’s important that we bolster our local and state laws, while protecting Californians from unconstitutional federal policies.
We work on a broad range of issues here in Northern California, and we will continue to do so. But in particular, we will be prepared for any attempts to create a dragnet deportation force in California. At the local level, law enforcement needs to make sure it’s avoiding unconstitutional entanglements with [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and a system of mass deportations.
We are also keeping a particularly watchful eye on the proposed ban levied against Muslims entering the United States, and the potential for increased government surveillance and discrimination against American Muslims.
Q: Your office is located in a liberal city in a blue state. Does that make the work you see ahead any easier?
A: We have an opportunity and a responsibility here in California. We can strengthen our local and state laws to further protect our civil rights in our state. That is our opportunity. But we have to go further. As individuals, and in the organizations and companies we work for and lead, we have a responsibility to speak up in defense of our fellow Americans outside this state.
Q: What, if anything, does the possible appointment of Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general mean for the work that the ACLU does?
A: Senator Sessions’ positions on LGBT rights, capital punishment, abortion rights and presidential authority in times of war have been contested by the ACLU and other civil rights organizations. As the nation’s highest-ranking law enforcement official, the attorney general is charged with protecting the rights of all Americans, yet Sessions has a reported history of making racist comments. In his confirmation hearings, senators, the media and the American public should closely examine his stances on these key issues to ensure we can have confidence in his ability to uphold the Constitution and our laws on behalf of all Americans.
Q: What are the top priorities for the ACLU of Northern California in 2017? Are there any particular areas of law that you expect to be focusing on?
A: It’s crucial that we take Donald Trump’s campaign promises seriously. Therefore, the ACLU is prepared to resist any attempt to create a dragnet deportation force. We’ll need to obstruct any effort to defund reproductive health service providers or deny reproductive rights. We must prevent “stop-and-frisk” policies from being adopted in our cities. And we must oppose any ban levied against Muslims for entry into the United States or discrimination against Muslims in the United States.
Q: Do you expect that you’ll be expanding your office’s staff given what could be an increasing workload?
A: We have expanded our presence in California’s Central Valley. Our staff in our Fresno office work throughout the Central Valley to address civil liberties issues there. Given the large number of farm workers and undocumented residents in the Central Valley, we expect that region to be really important in the coming period. We will also be stepping up our outreach and support of Muslim residents in our community who are likely to face discriminatory treatment in the face of some of the expected federal programs.
Contact the reporter at cmilleralm.com.