WASHINGTON ― The American Civil Liberties Union hosted an event on Thursday to discuss the history of the Confederate monuments erected across the United States and why communities should come together to remove them.
The live-streamed talk, hosted by ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jeffery Robinson, comes after the group received widespread backlash for its decision to defend white supremacists’ First Amendment right to march in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12.
Hordes of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and armed militiamen gathered in Charlottesville purportedly to protest the city’s ongoing debate over the removal of a Confederate memorial to Gen. Robert E. Lee. But participants in the rally, dubbed “Unite the Right,” clashed violently with counter-protesters. At least 35 people were injured and three people died ― including 32-year-old Heather Heyer, who was killed when a white supremacist drove his car through a group of anti-racist counter-protesters.
“You can take down every Confederate monument tomorrow, but it ain’t going to feed anybody. It ain’t going to get anybody out of prison. It’s not going to [pump] good water into Flint, Michigan,” Robinson said Thursday. “It’s not going to solve all the racial problems we have in America. What getting rid of the Confederate monuments will do is, in my view, begin a process of making Americans ... deal with the truth.”
The ACLU is openly re-evaluating its usual hardline stance in defense of the First Amendment after the group convinced a judge to permit the rally to be held at the controversial statue instead of moving it to another location.
The organization has always reviewed things on a case by base basis, but the events in Charlottesville have created an internal conversation about when exactly to step in, said Karthik Ganapathy, a spokesperson for the ACLU.
“The ACLU is always going to be an organization that protects First Amendment rights ― even from those whose speech we find abhorrent,” he told HuffPost. “But that has to square with making sure that we’re not protecting protesters who are likely to get violent.”
The ACLU has been knocked for supporting the free speech of the far-right before. After filing a lawsuit to protect the free speech rights of right-wing blogger Milo Yiannopoulos, activist organization BYP 100 slammed the ACLU in a Facebook post.
“This move by the ACLU Nationwide to defend Milo Yiannopoulos’ ‘free speech’ is an endorsement of an attack on the dignity and humanity of Black people. Point blank,” the activist organization said. “This is what happens when you navigate on principle devoid of transformative values and an anti-Black praxis.”
This move by the ACLU Nationwide to defend Milo Yiannopoulos’ ‘free speech’ is an endorsement of an attack on the dignity and humanity of Black people. Point blank. BYP 100
Thursday’s event, however, is focused on pushing civilians to advocate against the removal of Confederate statues and educating people on how politicians, like President Donald Trump, can use the memorials to rewrite history.
While defending his initial remarks about Charlottesville during a Tuesday rally in Phoenix, Trump omitted references he made calling out violence “on many sides.” He said that people were trying to “take away” American culture by pushing for the removal of Confederate monuments on public grounds.
“They’re trying to take away our culture. They’re trying to take away our history,” said Trump, who is not from a former Confederate state. “And our weak leaders, they do it overnight. These things have been there for 150 years, for a hundred years. You go back to a university and it’s gone. Weak, weak people.”
Robinson addressed the president’s comments Thursday.
“We can laugh when our president and people in this administration say things about our communities and our histories that we know are just not true, but people are listening,” he said. “And when we do not deal with the ugly part of the truth about our history, we have no chance of going forward.”
Robinson added that, in many conversations, race gets put “on the back burner” and the focus pivots to a state or municipality’s rights.
“You’ve got a president who’s out there lying about why these monuments were erected,” said Ganapathy. “He’s claiming that this is about heritage and American history when the reality is ... these monuments were erected to instill fear in specific communities and we want to tell the truth about that.”
ACLU People Power, the branch of the organization hosting the event, was launched in March as a way to mobilize people against Trump’s problematic policies.
“We needed to bring people out and give people something to do and get regular people involved in activism,” he said.
We’re an organization that’s always going to defend someone’s right to speak ― and it’s not because we like what the Nazis have to say. Karthik Ganapathy, a spokesperson for the ACLU
This is not the ACLU’s attempt at damage control, Ganapathy added.
“We’re an organization that’s always going to defend someone’s right to speak ― and it’s not because we like what the Nazis have to say,” he said. “We just don’t want the government to be in charge of what speech it finds acceptable. If we’re not out there saying a Nazi can protest peacefully, it puts the government in a position to decide whether or not to allow protests depending on whether or not you like what the protest is going to be about. We think that’s sort of a dangerous road.”
He emphasized this could lead to officials cracking down on groups whose views are more aligned with the ACLU.
“We have a robust legislative agenda that takes on almost all of what the Nazis stand for,” Ganapathy said, pointing to the organizations legal defense of immigrants and their racial justice programs.
“We’ve been working against what the Nazis stand for for a really long time,” he said. “This is just in keeping with a long history of building a more inclusive society.”
The ACLU’s response to Charlottesville, he added, “wasn’t at odds with that.”