The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a liberal NGO, with an annual budget of over $300 million. The ACLU is a civil-libertarian organization that promotes social change through incremental law reform and collaboration with conservative bedfellows. They frequently collaborate with the police while proclaiming to be strong advocates for racial justice and civic expression. The ACLU takes no position on Palestinian liberation or BDS, and works closely with the ADL, a Zionist organization that neutralizes social movements and trains the police.
The ACLU works with police departments and believes that policing can simply be dealt with through a framework of "privacy," individual rights, and dialogue between the proper so-called "stakeholders." As the abolitionist group Stop LAPD Spying Coalition has exposed, in 2015 the ACLU coordinated its policy closely with the chief of the LAPD, inviting the oppressors to give input and collaborate. As the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition wrote at the time: "The ACLU cannot play both sides – seek to be in collusion with elements of the security state AND try and represent and work on behalf of the communities which are impacted by the ever expanding architecture of state surveillance."
The ACLU's model is continually that of coming to the same table with the agents of the carceral state. In 2019, the ACLU participated in a conference at MIT involving "White House chiefs of staff, former cabinet secretaries, homeland security and defense policy chiefs, industry and civil society leaders, and leading researchers." The conference had a clear carceral, imperialist framing, focusing on how computing platforms could be utilized for "national defense" and "criminal justice."
Similarly, in 2018, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) published a handbook entitled The Police Response to Mass Demonstrations: Promising Practices and Lessons Learned. The handbook compiled information and insights PERF obtained from a forum they held in 2016, which included 50 police executives from across the country, including Ferguson, St. Louis, Oakland, Seattle, Boston, Baltimore, New York City, and Minneapolis, and which also included "academic experts" and representatives from the ACLU.
On page 20 of PERF's handbook, Arizona State University Professor Edward Maguire highlights four components of counterinsurgency doctrine utilized by US police: "education," which is to say "intelligence" and "gathering information about the event, the organizers, and their aims;" "facilitation" which "involves very clearly letting event organizers know that you take seriously your responsibility to facilitate their First Amendment expression" and thus communicating "your own expectations of their behavior and of the people in their group;" "communication," meaning establishing "continued lines of communication among crowds, organizers, and police;" and finally "differentiation" which is "about tailoring your response to the different segments of the crowd ... where you end up having extraction teams that move in with laser-like precision to arrest only people who are engaged in violence or property damage."
American Civil Liberties Union Senior Staff Attorney Lee Rowland helped advise police who attended PERF's 2016 forum on how best to manage the "facilitation" and "communication" aspects of this counterinsurgency doctrine. PERF's 2018 handbook quotes Rowland: "The emphasis in a police department should be on reaching out to the community and clearly explaining the rules that apply during a demonstration. Cops should be helping people to obtain protest permits. Ideally, demonstrators should inform law enforcement about planned events and have a clear communication stream before things get to the point of arrest or disruption." (p. 19) Later in PERF's handbook, on the subject of leaderless protests that announce themselves only on social media with no official lines of communication, Rowland further advises police: "I think it requires law enforcement to change their paradigm of thinking. So for example, if you are on social media looking for [leaders], remember that social media works two ways. Instead of insisting that you need to have a one on one with the leaders of a demonstration, I think departments can think creatively about using social media as a tool for reaching out to all demonstrators." (p. 56) (See also, entry on the Police Executive Research Forum) The ACLU's work to aid police in neutralizing social movements is particularly ironic given that the ACLU simultaneously pumps out Know Your Rights materials to protestors, and champions itself on supporting free political expression.
Unsurprisingly, the ACLU's framework and policy proposals relating to surveillance accommodate the carceral state and the corporations which support and profit from it. As Shakeer Rahman has pointed out, the ACLU proposes bureaucratic guidelines about "proper" use of various surveillance technologies, as if police forces and the corporations that service them can be expected to act ethically if only they are made aware of how to properly use technologies of surveillance. Any analysis of criminalization, settler-colonialism and white supremacy render this strategy useless at best. Again, the ACLU fails to legitimately confront state and corporate power and instead proposes tweaks and modifications to surveillance and policing.
The ACLU's so-called Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS) initiative is an example of the ACLU's liberal negation of abolitionist alternatives to the carceral state. As Hamid Khan and Peter White have argued, instead of following the lead of grassroots groups calling for the abolition of surveillance technologies and the defunding/dismantling of policing, CCOPS treats "potentially abusive surveillance programs as acceptable—and approved for unleashing on our communities—so long as a particular bureaucratic process is followed." CCOPS calls for laws that require police "to publicly disclose certain information and data about surveillance programs they intend to use," allowing police to "use these rules to selectively frame their surveillance in the terms most favorable to them. These disclosures then form the basis for public hearings to approve or disapprove the programs." As Khan and White explain, "CCOPS ignores the broadly oppressive history of police surveillance, treating it as an acceptable project that sometimes tips into excess. Police surveillance has always been an instrument of racial control. This means police 'reform' is inherently anti-Black, seeking to improve an institution that is white supremacist at its core by regulating only its worst abuses." Yet the ACLU, because of its structure and funding sources (see below), continues to back variations of liberal reforms of current surveillance practices, distracting from the necessity for the abolition of the carceral institutions engaged in state surveillance.
From 2002-2004, multiple Palestinian activists in the Boston area were targeted, detained, tortured, and deported (or forced to accept "voluntary departure") by local police forces, immigration authorities, and the FBI. In August 2003, one of these activists, Amer Jubran, wrote the following in a letter to ACLU Attorney John Reinstein, outlining the failure of the ACLU to defend Boston area Palestinian activists in the face of this state violence and repression:
I am writing you to express my lingering dissatisfaction with the Boston Chapter of the ACLU. […] The United States Government has targeted me because of my political beliefs and activities. The events that I have been subjected to in the last three years prove this beyond a doubt. Other Palestinian activists have been targeted as well.
The attacks on me started with Brookline case. I appreciated your involvement at the beginning of that affair. The information that we obtained from your inquiry was startling. This included the following discoveries:
• The Israel Independence Day organizers paid the city of Brookline for police protection;
• There was direct contact between the Brookline police captain and security officers at the Israeli consulate in Boston about our intention to protest on June 10;
• Surveillance of our demonstration in Brookline was done specifically to obtain mug shots of demonstrators;
• The FBI was contacted about local activists who only wished to express their political opinions.
Following this there continued to be other violations of my right to free speech and the linking of my name with September 11 by Brookline officials in the media. These events were of great significance to other activists and me. Yet, despite my numerous requests, you did not express any interest in following up with the any of above matters.
In the summer of 2002 Jaoudat Abouazza became the center of attention. His was a clear case of government targeting of Palestinian activists. On June 16, 2002, personnel at the Bristol County Jail extracted by force four teeth from Jaoudat's mouth, without using anesthesia. More disturbing was the fact that even though you saw the four wounds first hand and documented them with sketches, you did not provide any acknowledgement that this had happened. I hoped that you would at least confirm to the media, who did not think that I was a credible witness, what you saw that day. I did not then, and do not now, understand why you would not confirm what you saw.
Legal intervention was critical in the period while Jaoudat was still in custody—not only to remove him from the immediate danger of further abuse, but also to ensure that an independent medical and dental examination take place in time to document this act of torture. As it turned out, you helped us to obtain a lawyer […] who was willing to take on a lawsuit on Jaoudat’s behalf, but neither you nor [he] made any serious attempt to pursue either Jaoudat’s immediate release or immediate access to independent medical personnel. By the time Jaoudat was released from custody on ‘voluntary departure’ to Canada and we were able to re-establish contact with him, it was already too late for X-rays to show conclusively what had taken place.
The only other word I had from you last summer was your contacting us, not to inquire about Jaoudat, but to ask some questions on behalf of Nancy Geffen of the Jewish Council of Greater Boston. You asked to negotiate with us on our plans to protest the Israeli Day of Independence in Boston on June 9, 2002.
Last fall the government arrested me and put me in jail for seventeen days, without charges. After I was released, I visited with you and talked about my case in the hope that you would defend me. I was comforted by your strong statement that I was arrested because of my political actions and openly expressed opinions. In this December meeting, you explained that you could not do anything related to immigration defense. I replied that the Amer Jubran Defense Committee would take care of that. You also commented that the FBI's targeting of me based on my political actions would be hard to expose. Since then, friends of mine, with limited legal resources, managed to obtain important information through FOIA requests. This information, consisting of police reports and videotapes, provides clear evidence of an established network of surveillance and information sharing between local police departments, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security. […]
My case has reached a crucial juncture. The immigration judge has expressed his unwillingness to hear testimony concerning FBI witness intimidation; he suggested that the civil courts would be a more appropriate place to bring such allegations. A civil rights suit against the Department of Homeland Security is the next step that we must take -- a step that is both logical in my case, and necessary for defending the fundamental rights of others -- but this step will require serious legal support, not merely token gestures of interest.
With the limited resources of the Amer Jubran Defense Committee we managed to get a lot done. However, the government is getting bolder in attempting to harass, silence my dissent, and punish me, as well as others. More support is needed to stop these illegalities and to prevent further abuses. The ACLU is a respected organization. I have seen how eager ACLU is in protecting the freedom of expression of others, but for some reason this eagerness stops short with me. I am left to ask why?
Beyond the ACLU's failure to defend Palestinian activists targeted by the state, the ACLU also refuses to respect the Palestinian call for international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. While the ACLU has defended BDS activists on some occasions, they do so on strictly 1st amendment grounds without acknowledging the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause. The ACLU claims to take no position on BDS, stating in 2019: "The ACLU takes no position on boycotts of Israel or of any other foreign country, but it has long defended the right to boycott, which is protected under the First Amendment."
Yet, as the late Howard Zinn once remarked, "You can't be neutral on a moving train." So it is with the ACLU's supposed neutrality on the Palestinian call for BDS.
Since 2018, more than 200 Palestinian sports clubs along with Palestinian civil society broadly have been demanding that sportswear and apparel company PUMA terminate its sponsorship of the Israeli Football Association (IFA), Israel's national soccer league, while calling upon people around the world to impose a boycott against PUMA to pressure the company to do so (see entry on PUMA for details). In 2018, PUMA launched an initiative entitled "#REFORM," through which PUMA attempted to positively brand itself as a supporter of racial justice and LGBTQ rights. As part of its #REFORM initiative, PUMA created partnerships with a number of American NGOs, including the ACLU. Over the past four years, numerous Palestinian and other Black, Brown, and/or Indigenous employees and interns within the ACLU have repeatedly urged the ACLU to terminate this partnership with PUMA, in order to respect the Palestinian call for an international boycott of the company until PUMA severs its ties with the Israeli Football Association (IFA). The most responsive the ACLU has been to these internal calls for action has been to tell its employees and interns that the ACLU would "mention their concerns" to PUMA, with no commitment to action and no actions taken to date to sever the ACLU's relationship with the company.
The ACLU's claim that it "takes no position on boycotts of Israel" is morally weak and politically unacceptable to begin with. Yet, even this professed neutrality on BDS is contradicted by the ACLU's actions. The ACLU's support of PUMA during an active BDS campaign against the company is anything but neutral - the ACLU is directly crossing the picket line by association themselves with a company profiting off of Israeli apartheid and colonialism. Even when called out internally by its employees and interns, the ACLU continued to insist on its right to violate the Palestinian call for BDS, by lending the ACLU brand to PUMA's #REFORM campaign, helping PUMA to whitewash its expansive business relationship with with a violent, colonial ethnostate.
In addition to its flagrant disregard of the BDS, the ACLU further throws Palestinian solidarity activists and abolitionists alike under the bus through its continued collaboration with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Anthony Romero the Executive Director of the ACLU and Jonathan Greenblatt the Executive Director of the ADL have appeared together on panels, and the ACLU has filed numerous lawsuits alongside the ADL. Through these and other collaborations with The ADL, the ACLU offers legitimacy to the ADL's ongoing efforts to falsely brand itself as a civli rights organization, in spite of the ADL's long and ongoing history of collaborations with police around so-called "counterterrorism," the ADL's efforts to spy upon and repress anti-racist and anti-colonial movements, and the ADL's support for Israel's theft of Palestinian land and resources.
The ACLU's refusal to defend Palestinian activists, its failure to honor the Palestinian call to BDS, as well as its support for policing and surveillance (prettied up with liberal NGO window dressing) can be at least partially explained by where the ACLU gets its funding. In fiscal years 2018 and 2019 alone, Combined Jewish Philanthropies funneled $20,894,295 from its donors to the ACLU Foundation and the ACLU Foundation of Massachusetts. Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) is a donor advised fund (DAF) which receives large donations from Zionist donors, which CJP funnels into countless organizations that promote Israel's colonial subjugation of Palestinians and theft of Palestinian land and resources (see entries on Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Klarman Family Foundation, Ruderman Family Foundation, Kraft Family Philanthropies, Joseph and Rae Gann Charitable Foundation, Krupp Family Foundation, Paul and Joanne Egerman Family Charitable Foundation, Susan and Barry Tatelman Foundation, and Jonathan and Jeannie Lavine). Similarly, in fiscal years 2019 and 2020 alone, Fidelity Charitable funneled $63,517,690 from its donors to the ACLU Foundation, as well as $2,880,788 to the ACLU Foundation of Massachusetts. Like CJP, Fidelity Charitable receives large donations from pro-Israel donors which Fidelity funnels into organizations that promote Israel's colonial subjugation of Palestinians and theft of Palestinian land and resources (see entries on Fidelity Charitable and Jonathan and Jeannie Lavine).
Donor advised funds like Combined Jewish Philanthropies and Fidelity Charitable function as recipients of large sums of money from wealthy individuals, money which DAFs channel to wealthy donors' causes of choice as donations from the donor advised fund, without the necessity of public transparency that the donation came from the specific wealthy donor. In this way, donor advised funds allow wealthy individuals to financially support organizations without the public necessarily knowing that they are doing so, or knowing the extent to which they are doing so. Donor advised funds do, however, disclose the donor behind a given donation to the charity receiving the donation, ensuring that, while donors remain anonymous to the public, they still receive attention from and, in some cases, gain influence in the organizations receiving their gifts (see "Charity Is Theft" article on homepage for more details).
Accordingly, while we in the public are kept in the dark as to who is behind the $20,894,295 the ACLU received from CJP in FY18-19 and the $63,517,690 the ACLU received from Fidelity Charitable in FY19-20, we can be sure that CJP and Fidelity Charitable made the ACLU fully aware of exactly where these funds came from. While many ACLU employees and interns have agitated for the organization to support Palestinian, Black, Brown, and Indigenous demands for radical change, the ACLU has not changed its fundamentally reformist, often directly harmful practices. Perhaps this is because the ACLU is beholden to the donations from multi-millionaires who support the status quo of Zionist colonization, policing, and other interlocking systems of oppression. In this way, the ACLU can be seen as controlled resistance that fails to reckon with the demands of grassroots organizers.