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Mayor Cory Booker: Please See Me After Class

Deborah J. Vagins,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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July 14, 2009

(Originally posted on Huffington Post.)

In his six months in office, President Obama has disappointed social justice advocates with his positions on issues like gay rights, warrantless wiretapping and, most recently, indefinite detention. We all want to see our president succeed; he generates hope and excitement, and embodies long-awaited change. But we also feel conflicted – while we’re sympathetic to the many obstacles he faces to creating meaningful change, the president still needs a resolute front to hold his feet to the fire.

Newark, N.J., a microcosm of Obama’s plight, is a petri dish of a place with a visionary leader who inspires hope. When Mayor Cory Booker took office three years ago, he promised long-suffering Newarkers that he would capitalize on untapped resources, restore public trust in government and honor the civil liberties he has always held close to his heart. He also implored us to hold him accountable, knowing that government depends on citizens to keep it in line.

Mayor Booker has a full plate: reducing crime, confronting poverty and educating students whose schools have for too long failed them. But, in Newark, every plate needs a big scoop of civil liberties. After all, few cities have as extensive histories of civil liberties abuses against its citizens — the 1967 rebellion and riots were fueled in large part by police brutality. The mayor personally experienced violations of free speech and other rights under the prior leadership of the city, as the acclaimed film Street Fight documented.

This week, the ACLU of New Jersey issued Mayor Booker’s junior-year report card on civil liberties; he earned a disappointing C-average. When it comes to civil liberties, the mayor hasn’t reached his potential.

The mayor earned his best grades — B’s — in two subjects: open government and immigrant rights. In open government, the mayor swiftly corrected problems, such as his administration’s practice of having corporation counsel scrutinize each response to public records requests.

In immigrants’ rights, the mayor has set the right tone and backed up his words, working closely with community advocates to address tensions over day laborers waiting for work in Newark’s Portuguese district. He recognizes Newark’s diversity and the importance of defusing tensions between different communities and has demonstrated exceptional grace in discouraging anti-immigrant sentiment, even in the face of political consequences.

However, the Mayor earned unacceptably low grades on two essential subjects: a C- in free speech, and a D in police practices.

Mayor Booker has yet to resolve basic free-speech failures. For seven years, the ACLU-NJ has grappled with the city to stop it from illegally requiring people to purchase million-dollar liability insurance policies before holding public demonstrations. The ACLU-NJ won a lawsuit ordering the city to end this practice and helped the city formulate its free speech policy, but City Hall workers still misinformed people that they needed insurance to exercise free speech in Newark.

The Mayor received his lowest grade, a D, in police practices, the subject that has most direct impact on citizens. The ACLU-NJ has received an unprecedented number of complaints against the Newark Police during the Booker administration. We represent teenagers treated abusively by the Newark police, as well as a newspaper publisher illegally held in custody in an attempt to suppress his First Amendment rights.

Most recently, the ACLU-NJ took on the case of a woman stopped by two Newark officers who apparently had made a bet about her gender. The officers demeaned, harassed and arrested her on false charges.

Our clients who contacted internal affairs for help only encountered further rights violations, including having their complaints lost, misdirected, ignored and even refused, a grave situation given internal affairs’ status as one of the mayor’s top priorities.

At the end of the day, our report card is more than just handing out a grade. We’re looking at the real lives of people in this city and adding up the costs to their rights. While many of the civil liberties problems originated long before Mayor Booker arrived on the scene and some are perpetuated by the culture of the city, the mayor should have made more progress on civil liberties by now.

We recognize that, as with President Obama, the mayor has countless political and economic obstacles. But when it comes to taking decisive action to protect freedom of speech or stop abusive police practices, the citizenry is 100 percent on the side of the mayor’s success. We need him on our side in return. He has tremendous power to better protect civil liberties in Newark, provided he has the will to dig in and take charge.

We hope that the mayor will make civil liberties a higher priority in his “senior” year. Newark can’t have public safety without public trust, and Mayor Booker must earn that trust by respecting the rights of the people. Idealism and soaring rhetoric are inspiring in a politician, but bold actions must follow bold words.

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