Janine Jackson interviewed Sue Udry about civil liberties under Trump for the November 18, 2016, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Watching social media, interest and energy around issues seems to swell and dissipate. But moving toward a functioning, inclusive democracy requires sustained work: building institutions, organizing, so that in times of acute crisis we have structures, or at least models of ways to respond.
From promises of mass surveillance, stepped-up stop and frisk, to religion-based bans on entry to the country, a Trump White House looks to be a nightmare for civil rights and liberties. Here to talk about how folks are planning to get through it is Sue Udry. She’s executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, joined now with the Defending Dissent Foundation. She joins us by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Sue Udry.
Sue Udry: Hi, Janine. It’s great to be here.
Well, one hardly knows where to start. It’s difficult to think of a person from whom the Bill of Rights more requires defense, and this is coming off decades that have not been kind to it. You don’t want to immobilize people, but you also want to say that the danger is real. But organizers have institutional memories, right, and have seen, maybe not exactly this, but things enough like this that we can see some way forward in terms of what we do.
Exactly. I think for a lot of us, the main problem is that President Bush followed by President Obama really have, the Democrats and Republicans have, worked together to assemble some pretty powerful tools of repression that can be used and abused to crush dissent and attack people of color and immigrants and Muslims. That’s what concerns us. When the keys to the empire are turned over to a President Trump, he’s going to be able to use and build on some already pretty expansive executive branch authorities, and we can’t count on Congress to be any check on his powers at all, I’m afraid.
So the way that we’re looking at this is really kind of the way that we’ve always organized, which is to focus at the local level and work to build — well, we’re calling it building walls of resistance around communities, so that people can protect the rights of everyone in their community, particularly their most vulnerable neighbors, Muslims and immigrants, LGBTQ folks, and people of color. And I think that’s where our energy’s going to go.
I wanted to draw you out further on that, because I think that people are looking and have been looking to other levels of government, to community, local, even statewide, as a site for resistance. But those structures need support, and in some cases they need creating. So I wonder if you could tell us a little more about the campaign that the committee has to use local laws and resolutions to protect civil liberties.
It’s not necessarily an easy task we have ahead of us, because there are a number of different programs that we need to be worried about where local action can be taken to protect people. And so what we’ve drawn up is two different model ordinances that communities can use to ask their city councils or their county councils to enact in order to — the theory behind the model legislation is to break the ties between local police and the federal law enforcement and intelligence and immigration enforcement agencies. So it really relies on an idea of noncooperation, so that local police are not supporting federal programs to oppress and repress and discriminate.
And are protecting their right to opt out of that.
Exactly. So that’s one angle of it. And then, the other angle that’s always been necessary is to restrict local police from profiling people in a discriminatory manner — you know, pulling people over because they’re African-American, or because they’re Muslim, or something like that. So enacting really strict nondiscriminatory policing laws is also key to that.
So those are kind of the ways that the legislation can work, and the ways that communities need to organize to get them passed is to build strong coalitions, which they should be doing anyway in their communities.
Right now, I feel like that’s happening a lot: People are reaching out at the community level to talk to their neighbors and different organizations that they might be working with, and trying to figure out, OK, how are we going to work together to confront this? So I think that makes the progressive movement stronger, and that’s what we’re going to need.
Absolutely. You sort of touched on this. I think it’s important that we identify policies or proposals as bad or as harmful because we think they’re bad or harmful, and not because they come from Donald Trump.
It seems to me that the people who are losing the most here — are in the most real danger, besides to their feelings — they seem to be the ones saying most strongly that the status quo ante is not the goal, that we really want to not just go back to where we were, but to try to work to create something better.
Yeah, I think that’s very true. And then, from what I heard, the statement that came out of the Black Lives Matter movement today was, our work goes on the same as it has been. It’s not like things were wonderful under a President Obama, and so we know what we’ve got to do, and we’ve been doing it. We just need to do it harder now.
Exactly. On a different tack, I wonder what you make of something like this op-ed that ran in The Washington Post, where the writer, Petula Dvorak, says that people who are out in the street protesting Trump are protesting democracy, and that those street protests are equivalent to something like spray-painting a swastika on a synagogue. How do you react to a media figure saying something like that?
Yeah, that’s incredible to me. I didn’t read her op-ed, but it’s interesting. So she’s got a platform from which to speak her ideas. Millions of people in the United States do not have a platform that she has, and our only way to communicate our concern about a Trump presidency is to be out in the street. And so I think that’s appalling, I think it’s — you know, she’s a journalist, she can say whatever she wants. I’m more worried about when that point of view comes from people who are potentially going to be part of a Trump administration.
The sheriff of Milwaukee, whose name I’m forgetting right now, he said some very incendiary things about protesters and how one should respond to protests, which he called riots. So that’s really my concern. Journalists are going to — you know, haters are going to hate, it’s when they’re in positions of power and authority over us that I really get concerned.
And just to be clear, we have a right to peaceful protests, do we not? I mean, I think a lot of people who never thought of doing it want to do it, and voices that tell them that it’s destructive, that it goes against the founding principles of democracy, I think that can be a real discouragement to people.
Oh, it’s absolutely, it’s absolutely unacceptable. Absolutely. But it’s a constant refrain. Whenever there are large protests, there are always voices in the media, and voices even among elected officials and authorities, that put down the protesters and call them all sorts of unjustified things. And that’s absolutely not acceptable. We have a right to be out there, and in fact a duty to be out there. That’s what a democracy is. It doesn’t start and end in the voting booth. People need to remain active and engaged in civil society, and we say, dissent is essential to democracy.
Let me just ask you finally, before the election many in the media had seemed to talk about Trump as if he were a joke. And they would say critical things about him… but we know the tendency to normalize, a word we’re hearing a lot lately, and frankly also to curry favor. So I have some doubts about where media are going to put their focus going forward, corporate media. Because I see a lot of elements out there that are growing up in resistance, that could be showcased, that media could be covering — those stories of what organizers are doing. I’m concerned that that won’t happen. But from your perspective, what could a press corps do that would be wind at your back for the work that you’re doing? What kinds of stories, what kinds of reporting, do you think would be helpful at this point in time?
I think covering the concerns of people, and what people are doing constructively to really strengthen their communities, I think that would be essential. I agree with you that the corporate media is — they know that Trump is not a strong proponent of the First Amendment, and they know that he’s attacked even corporate media, right? And so, if they think they’re going to be able to win his favor by being nice to him, I think they’re wrong, and I think they’ll just be ruining their reputation.
But we really count on the alternative media and folks who are independent of corporate funding, and we rely on those outlets to get the word out. And I think, more and more, that’s where people are turning, rather than your corporate media. Because they totally let us down during this election cycle.
We’ve been speaking with Sue Udry. She’s executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and Defending Defense Foundation. You can find them online at BORDC.org. Sue Udry, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
Thanks so much, Janine.