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  • Writer's pictureShelly Albaum

ACLU Sends a Bullshit Flyer

Updated: Feb 2, 2020

I like the ACLU; I send them money. But I'm not going to send them money if they do more shit like this.

Two flyers appeared in the mail this week. They purport to tell me how the Democratic Presidential contenders compare on civil rights issues. So far, so good. That's an important thing to do, and the ACLU is the right person to do it.

But then everything goes to Hell.

There are three major problems with these flyers (you can check them out yourself). One covers Criminal Justice, the other covers Immigrant Justice:

Joe Biden. The first problem is that Joe Biden isn't on the flyer, which means he is spared the ACLU's disapproving red NO that every other candidate gets for not doing enough to decriminalize drugs, even though, as author of the notorious crime bill, Biden would probably be the worst offender.

Instead, Biden merely gets a footnote noting that he did not return the survey, and that the ACLU lamely and hopelessly "continues to urge his campaign" to tell us where he stands.

That's bullshit. The ACLU is rewarding Biden for obfuscation. The ACLU's job here is to use Biden's public record and public statements to tell us how Biden is likely to behave. And when they do, they should not be giving Biden the benefit of the doubt, since he refuses to answer. Instead, the ACLU denounces the other candidates and gives Biden a pass.

No Differences. The second problem is that the ACLU identifies almost no differences between the candidates. On Immigrant Justice, Buttigieg, Sanders, and Yang get identical scores, and maybe Warren is slightly worse on one issue because she does not commit to "reduce the number of immigrants in detention by at least 75%." I don't believe that there are no differences between Buttigieg, Sanders, and Yang on immigrant rights. I'm not even convinced that Warren's alleged refusal to meet the ACLU's arbitrary threshold of 75% reduction means she is bad on this issue. Is Warren committing only to 74%, or does she not think arbitrary quotas make sense as policy, or does she want to actually raise the number of immigrants in detention? The ACLU has not provided a good framework for evaluating the candidates.

The same is true on the Criminal Justice flyer, but now the ACLU can find no important differences among Buttigieg, Sanders, and Warren, and maybe Yang is a little worse because he does not agree to reduce federal incarceration by 50%. Again, I don't think that there are no significant differences between Buttigieg, Sanders, and Warren on criminal justice reform. In fact, it's crazy to even suggest such a thing. I don't even believe that Yang, who would be the most Libertarian of the group, is the worst on criminal justice reform. This is bullshit.

But if it were true that there were no significant differences among the candidates on civil liberties, then the ACLU shouldn't be sending flyers to tell us that; that's a waste of money.

Inaccurate Ratings. But it's not really a waste of money; it's a lie. The ACLU gives Bernie Sanders a "NO" rating for "Decriminalizing Drug Use and Provide Treatment Over Prisons." Really? Bernie Sanders is against that? I thought he had been arguing for that all his life.

Here's what Bernie says about criminal justice reform on his website:

  • End for-profit greed in our criminal justice system, top to bottom by: by banning for-profit prisons and detention centers, ending cash bail, and making prison and jail communications, re-entry, diversion and treatment programs fee-free.

  • Ensure due process and right to counsel by vastly increasing funding for public defenders and creating a federal formula to ensure populations have a minimum number of public defenders to meet their needs.

  • Cut the national prison population in half and end mass incarceration by abolishing the death penalty, three strikes laws, and mandatory minimum sentences, as well as expanding the use of alternatives to detention

  • Transform the way we police communities by end the War on Drugs by legalizing marijuana and expunging past convictions, treating children who interact with the justice system as children, reversing the criminalization of addiction, and ending the reliance on police forces to handle mental health emergencies, homelessness, maintenance violations, and other low-level situations.

  • Reform our decrepit prison system, guarantee a “Prisoners Bill of Rights,” and ensure a just transition for incarcerated individuals upon their release.

  • Reverse the criminalization of communities, end cycles of violence, provide support to survivors of crime, and invest in our communities.

  • Ensure law enforcement accountability and robust oversight, including banning the use of facial recognition software for policing.

You'd think the ACLU would be pretty darn excited about that stuff!! It's the ACLU's dream come true! And Bernie Sanders specifically advocates "ending the war on drugs," "expanding the use of alternatives to detention," and providing "treatment programs fee-free." How is that not good enough to get a YES for "Decriminalizing Drugs Use and Providing Treatment Over Prisons"???

Total bullshit.

What is perhaps going on is that the ACLU, recently flush with cash, feels beholden to wealth donors who do not wish to see Joe Biden's ugly record on civil rights highlighted, nor do they wish to see highlighted Sanders' significantly greater commitment to civil rights than any other candidate's.

For example, Buttigieg talks about eliminating the "for profit bail industry," whereas Sanders proposes to eliminate cash bail itself. Big difference.

Warren says that the racial disparities in the criminal justice system need to end, but she seems to think that simply denouncing the structures that lead to the result and having better judicial nominees will do the trick. Sanders, by contrast, calls for a vast expansion of the public defender's office and a prisoner's bill of rights.

Today, under the 13th Amendment, prisoners are slaves. A Prisoner's Bill of Rights is an extraordinarily powerful idea for the one area of American life where slavery remains legal. Possibly this is the most important civil rights issue of our time? But the ACLU is not seeing a big difference.

And what about Yang? Sanders wants to eliminate cash bail; Yang wants to reduce it. Sanders wants to "end mandatory minimum sentences"; Yang wants to "review the current mandatory minimum laws." Sanders wants to ensure "robust oversight for law enforcement" and "ban the use of facial recognition software for policing"; Yang's website wants more bodycams. Does the ACLU see a difference? Do they care about those things? Apparently not any more.


The ACLU has sent a third bullshit flyer (below), this one has all the same defects of the previous two, but is perhaps more egregious. The message this time is that in the general category of "Rights for All" commitments, they can't see any difference between Sanders, Warren, and Yang, but they have noticed Buttigieg is okay with drone strikes.

This is not only unhelpful in general, the flyer also strays even further from the truth than the prior flyers.

First, the category "Rights for All Commitments" simply cannot be represented by the four items drone strikes, political boycotts, disability health services, and warrants for digital surveillance. That doesn't come close to covering the waterfront.

Second, although the ACLU can see no differences whatsoever between the four candidates in the areas of "First Amendment," "Disability Rights," and "Privacy," there are obviously extreme differences. Senator Sanders' major and unprecedented support of disability rights distinguishes him -- The American Prospect called it "the most comprehensive plan in the field." The Sanders disability policy was released after ACLU went to press, but the ACLU didn't need every detail; all they needed was to do enough research to figure out where Sanders was coming from and how that would rank compared to the others. On prognostication, the ACLU gets an "F." But the real failing grade goes to the ACLU's binary approach -- either a candidate is good or bad -- without any subtlety, without any depth, and without useful comparative information that voters need to make a choice in the primary.

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