In this episode we connect with Abdi Soltani, The Executive Director of ACLU of Northern California. We discuss the origins and history of ACLU and the Northern California branch, founded by Ernest Besig. Besig and the ACLU of Northern California supported and offered legal counsel to many Japanese Americans incarcerated during WWII, including Fred Korematsu.
Our conversation also explores the current issues the ACLU is committed to in Northern California, concerning criminal justice reform. "...every person is deserving of the dignity, the fair treatment, the due process, the equal protection of the law that should be afforded by the Constitution of the United States."
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Abdi Soltani has served as the executive director of the ACLU of Northern California since 2009. During his tenure, he has pursued long-term priorities to deepen the ACLU’s presence in the California Central Valley and elevate the ACLU’s voice on state policy at the California state capitol.
Abdi has worked directly on a number of ACLU campaigns. Through 2015, he co-chaired the Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy with then Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, where he helped draft the blueprint for safe and equitable legalization of marijuana in California. He has also worked on campaigns for racial justice, criminal justice reform, voting rights, and immigrants’ rights.
Beginning in the mid 1990’s, the central arc of Abdi’s career as a civil rights advocate has been the transformation of California from a state that led attacks on civil rights to a state that is at the forefront of advancing equality. As an Iranian-American, Abdi is a champion of the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, educating the public about its origins in the movement to abolish slavery and its impacts for equality and freedom for all of us.
"All of us who are advocates for human rights, whether in our professions, as it is for me who work full-time at the ACLU of Northern California, or whether just as a person or a citizen who lives in the country, we all always are making questions of judgment."
Chapters is a multi-part series concerning the history and the lessons of civil rights violations or civil liberties injustices carried out against communities or populations—including civil rights violations or civil liberties injustices that are perpetrated on the basis of an individual’s race, national origin, immigration status, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.
Guest: Abdi Soltani
Hosts: Jon-Barrett Ingels
Produced by: Past Forward
[00:00:04] Abdi Soltani: At the heart of it, everything we do is political. The government is political. Protections of human rights are ultimately political because they're decisions made by political actors or by judges who are appointed and confirmed through the political process. We all live and breathe the issues, the prejudices, and the mindset of the society that we live in. The way in which this country lawfully permitted slavery for the centuries that it did reflects a political ideology at the time of who was human and who wasn't human.
[00:00:43] Host: Welcome to the fourth installment of the Chapters podcast series. I'm your host, Jon-Barrett Ingels. In our Chapters series, we focus on stories surrounding the exclusion, forced removal, and internment of Japanese Americans. But, with all that is happening in our country right now, in this historic moment ripe with the potential for change and growth, we are expanding our scope and amplifying the voices of organizations and individuals who are trying to make a difference. Who are standing at the convergence of art, education, and social justice. With this series, we honor those who have struggled and suffered in the past and question, how are we still here? How have we not come any further than this?
In this episode, we connect with Abdi Soltani, executive director of the ACLU of Northern California. We discuss the history and importance of the ACLU, and the Northern California branch's involvement in supporting the civil rights of Japanese Americans incarcerated following Executive Order 9066.
Let's start with a remedial description and history of what the ACLU does and has been doing for over a century.
“It took a lot of work to bend the Constitution, essentially, back to its purpose as we understand it, which is to defend the rights of all people.”
[00:02:02] Abdi Soltani: The ACLU was founded in 1920. To understand the backdrop of how it came about, we really have to understand the period at that time, and the decade leading up to it. In World War I, there was groups of conscientious objectors. That was one of the points of context. There was also a large amount of immigration to the United States, especially from Eastern Europe, including of socialists, radicals, union organizers, and others. Out of that confluence of that period, we also have to also remember that the United States was at the height of lynchings and what was termed the Red Summer. The racial segregation against African-Americans was really at its peak at that point.
When we look at that whole period, is this confluence of factors that led to the founding of the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920. One of the catalysts was an event that, for a lot of us today don't know much about, was called the Palmer Raids. There was a bomb exploded outside the home or at the home of then-Attorney General Palmer. In response, the United States rounded up, detained, and deported large numbers of immigrants with no due process, no individual suspicion, et cetera. It's out of all of that period that the ACLU was founded with the simple idea of defending the rights of everyone under the Constitution of the United States.
I think for us today when we think about defending people's rights under the Constitution, it's something we've been doing at the ACLU and many other organizations for years, but the Constitution was not on the side of defending people's rights in the 1910s and at the time of the founding of the organization. It took a lot of work to bend the Constitution, essentially, back to its purpose as we understand it, which is to defend the rights of all people.
[00:04:04] Host: Was it mainly lawyers and community leaders coming together? Obviously, there had to be that legal understanding of what the Constitution said, and how you can work with the courts in able to fix these issues, or move the needle, at least.
[00:04:27] Abdi Soltani: In the period that the ACLU was founded, the Supreme Court and courts, in general, were quite hostile to the rights of regular people. Plessy v. Ferguson, the infamous decision that authorized separate and unequal was the law of the land. That was the prevailing law that permitted legal, racial segregation. Workers and consumers who had petitioned the court for protection of their rights had been pushed away, and the Supreme Court had this, what we now call the Lochner era, where the courts really upheld the private property rights of corporations and what they called the “liberty of contract,” whereby they did not allow state laws passed by legislatures to stand regulating the rights of workers or consumers on the premise of protecting private property.
What's galling about those decisions when you hold up Plessy v. Ferguson, which legalized racial discrimination on the one hand, and then on the other hand, you have these laws that permitted corporations to abuse the rights of workers and consumers, it was all under the Constitution. It was all using the language of due process to uphold the due process rights of corporations. It was using the language of equal protection to say separate and equal was lawful.
At the time of the ACLU's founding, it was not the period where there was this very clear roadmap for how you go to court and achieve legal victories. The ACLU was founded with, I would say, two main strategies. One certainly was to petition courts, and very early in its history, the ACLU enlisted volunteer attorneys or a small number of attorneys on its staff to bring cases alongside groups like the NAACP and other partners in the world of civil liberties and civil rights. Concurrent to doing the work in the courts was also the work of public education, activism, and mobilizing people to defend their rights in their own communities outside of the courts at the same time.
“They were exercising the freedom of assembly that's part of the First Amendment by forming this association. Every one of our associations or organizations ultimately is an expression of the First Amendment right to the freedom of assembly. They were exercising that freedom.”
[00:06:41] Host: Then after the start, 1920, about 15 years later, the Northern California branch, your branch where you're the executive director, was formed with Ernest Besig as its first executive director. As these branches started forming from the national organization, I'm curious, at that time, and we can even look at now, what were some of the issues that made Northern California unique to the rest of the country and to the rest of the state, as opposed to having just a California branch? What was the decision to have a Northern California versus a Southern California branch?
[00:07:25] Abdi Soltani: Soon after the National ACLU was founded, there were these networks of correspondence, attorneys and community members, advocates around the country who would correspond with the National Office, often by Telegram or US Mail. The National ACLU also had newsletters and publications, and people would sign up for them. I think about it in terms of the freedom of assembly. They were exercising the freedom of assembly that's part of the First Amendment by forming this association. Every one of our associations or organizations ultimately is an expression of the First Amendment right to the freedom of assembly. They were exercising that freedom.
In the course of that process, some of these local networks formed ACLUs in their own home states. There's a bit of a debate whether it was the ACLU of Massachusetts or the ACLU of Southern California that came first. Massachusetts claims to be the first statewide ACLU affiliate, but as a Californian, I take the side of the ACLU of Southern California being the first affiliate. They were founded in 1923 when Los Angeles was a much smaller city than San Francisco. We didn't have the same systems of transportation. I don't think we had the same idea of being statewide.
They founded the ACLU in Los Angeles as the ACLU of Southern California. That story also is just so incredibly inspiring story involving Upton Sinclair in his speech at the top of Liberty Hill where he read the Constitution and was arrested for it. That's when the ACLU of Southern California was founded in the early '20s. During the '20s, there were some starts and stops to an ACLU committee in San Francisco, but during the Great Depression is when we really gained the momentum, and we were founded then as a throughline straight from the '30s to now.
In the period of the Great Depression, workers throughout the United States were demanding fair treatment. It's a huge period of United States history what unfolded during the Great Depression. Here in San Francisco, the workers, particularly the longshoremen, the seamen, and others organized the general strike in San Francisco. They were met with brutal violence, both by these vigilante squads that were hired by the large employers, as well as by the police.
Violence included not only two workers who were shot very close to where my office is now near Mission Street where it meets the bay, but also the raiding of union halls and destroying publications, and breaking up meetings and associations that people were forming to demand fair treatment of workers. Out of that set of facts, the ACLU from Southern California sent two people to Northern California to investigate what's happening, and one of those two people was Ernest Besig, who then went on to found the ACLU of Northern California and creating what is today this organization.
The throughlines from that period to now are incredibly consistent in some ways. We continue to defend the right to freedom of speech and freedom of association, the right to protest. We continue to deal with issues of police violence in San Francisco and elsewhere in Northern California. While things changed, a lot of underlying issues continue and require long-term attention.
“Equal protection under the law, due process, these were bedrock principles and they applied to every person. I think that it took a belief as strong as that and as deep as that for him to include within that meaning of the word “person,” Japanese American persons and citizens in the face of the internment order, in the face of this wartime hysteria that had gripped the United States.“
[00:11:12] Host: With this series, we focus a lot and we connect with a lot of organizations that do work to memorialize the Japanese-American incarceration. Ernest Besig, the founder and first executive director of the Northern California branch, was a pivotal supporter for a lot of the incarcerated and his name comes up, the case of Fred Korematsu. I've talked about it with numerous different organizations.
The thing that is interesting is that ACLU of Northern California and Ernest Besig were an island in this cause, where the National Board and the national director told them to end their support. As far as I’ve read, it was because of ties to President Roosevelt, who signed the Executive Order 9066. Political connections hamstrung the support of over 120,000 incarcerated Americans. Where we are now, how does the ACLU or your branch, how do they prevent politics from getting in the way of people in need?
[00:12:32] Abdi Soltani: Ernest Besig, who was then the director of the ACLU, had a really deep and core belief that animated everything that he did, which is the idea that every person is deserving of the fundamental protections of the Constitution. Equal protection under the law, due process, these were bedrock principles and they applied to every person. I think that it took a belief as strong as that and as deep as that for him to include within that meaning of the word “person,” Japanese American persons and citizens in the face of the internment order, in the face of this wartime hysteria that had gripped the United States.
He was resolute. He was a hard-headed man, and he would not back down. The National ACLU initially criticized the internment order and urged ACLU affiliates to fight the internment and to find cases. Fred and the other leaders of the ACLU in the West Coast all began that process. We've heard of, or Ernest Besig heard of this young man, Fred Korematsu, who had defied the internment order and who was arrested and held in a San Francisco jail. Ernest visited Fred and asked if Fred would sue the United States of America for violating his constitutional rights. Fred said, "Yes."
Once they shook hands, they had formed an attorney-client relationship, and we had made a commitment to Fred to represent him. When the National ACLU then changed course and decided that they would work through back channels to work with the Roosevelt administration to address internment or some of the National Board members were willing to tolerate it, Ernest Besig would not back down. I think that it speaks enormously, first and foremost, to Fred Korematsu's courage for defying the order and for knowing that when the President of the United States, when the military leadership of the United States had failed the Constitution and failed the promise of this country, Fred Korematsu would uphold it himself.
When Ernest Besig was willing to do that with him, the bond that they formed is remarkable, and it's a commitment that both Fred saw through and that Ernest saw through, with, of course, Fred bearing the brunt of it as the person who was put into those concentration camps. To the bigger question, then, that this raises is, how do you know what's the right thing to do at any given time? All of us who are advocates for human rights, whether in our professions, as it is for me who work full-time at the ACLU of Northern California, or whether just as a person or a citizen who lives in the country, we all always are making questions of judgment. What are the issues that cause us concern on which we're going to speak out?
Once we decide we're going to speak out on it, how do we choose to engage? I don't want to make light in retrospect that this was easy for anyone. This was a really difficult period for the country. I think that the National ACLU's proximity to President Roosevelt and some of the National Board members and others, it affected their outlook. Some of them felt that they could be more effective by lobbying behind the scenes, but others believed that we were facing war and that this might, in fact, be a legitimate exercise of government power.
I think that as we work as advocates today, where we have access to government officials, whether it's a mayor or a governor or a legislator, I think we need to use that access to advance our cause. I think we should really think twice if we're ever asked to trade one thing that we believe in, in order to back off of something else, and to not succumb to those types of trading the rights of one person for another.
[00:16:46] Host: That's well said. You wouldn't consider the ACLU a political organization. It is a human rights and civil rights and liberties organization. These issues of civil rights and civil liberties feel like they've become politicized issues, and especially now, given how divisive we've become as a nation. How do you keep politics out of work when the work itself is turned into political action?
[00:17:22] Abdi Soltani: The question of how does politics intersect with protecting civil liberties and civil rights is a really interesting one. At the heart of it, everything we do is political. The government is political. Protections of human rights are ultimately political because they're decisions made by political actors or by judges who are appointed and confirmed through the political process. We all live and breathe the issues, the prejudices, and the mindset of the society that we live in. The way in which this country lawfully permitted slavery for the centuries that it did reflects a political ideology at the time of who was human and who wasn't human.
The three-fifths clause in the Constitution designed the census to count three-fifths of an enslaved person towards the representation of the Southern states in which African-Americans had no voice and no say. I don't think of things, that we can ever remove politics from what we do because politics is what drives public policy. I do think that there's a way in which at the ACLU we have to frame our issues in our work in such a manner that it's not political in the sense that it's not designed to favor one party over another party. At the end of the day, everything we fight for deals with the political system and tackling the political system.
I think the other thing too that we're increasingly attentive to, is that we cannot rely on the courts to be the final bulwark of defending people's rights. In reality, we've never thought that the courts should be the final bulwark of defending people's rights, but more so now than certainly any point in my lifetime is that the case. We do have to do much more of our work proactively to stop bad laws in state legislatures or in Congress, to pass good laws in states and in Congress, to work with mayors or governors or others who want to promote civil liberties and civil rights, and not to stand on the sideline hoping that those people will do the right thing. We have to engage in the political process to protect and to advance civil liberties and civil rights.
All of that needs to be done with the lens of not doing it to favor one party over another or to favor one politician because we like them over another. I actually think our work holding Governor Newsom accountable is a really good example of that in California. I served with then Lieutenant Governor Newsom on a blue ribbon commission that ACLU Northern California and the Lieutenant Governor created to study how to safely legalize marijuana. When he was mayor of San Francisco he was a strong champion of marriage equality as well.
None of that holds us back from criticizing Governor Newsom or suing him and his administration when a different action that they take violates people's constitutional rights. That's the way I look at it, is that we have to engage in the political process to both defend and advance civil liberties and civil rights. We will still go to court regardless of who or which party appointed which judge. We will still go to court. We will bring the best arguments we can, but we will also hold elected officials accountable and not hold back our punches when there are fundamental issues at stake.
“For me, that's a big priority is the top-to-bottom work we're doing on reimagining public safety and the role of police, and the role of incarceration and really narrowing those functions.”
[00:21:09] Host: What do you see are some of the most pressing issues that the ACLU of Northern California are currently facing or focused on?
[00:21:19] Abdi Soltani: I think in a big picture way and something I've been really committed to during my time at the ACLU, it's a very long-standing concern of the organization, is our criminal justice system. When we think to the way in which Fred Korematsu and other Japanese Americans were detained, rounded up, incarcerated, and people use the term concentration camps appropriately. At that time, the hysteria of the bombing of Pearl Harbor was the impetus on top of the anti-Asian racism that had been pervasive in the United States all the way through the 1800s.
Now, today, when I look at our issues, they're not one-to-one what Japanese American internment was. I think our system of incarceration is worthy of that type of careful skeptical review. Certainly, the war on drugs was and is a catastrophe of human rights. I think we've done a good job of taking certain things like marijuana, which was a leading cause of arrest and incarceration, to now a system where there's a parallel legal world of marijuana. We've reduced some of the sentences for certain drugs from felonies, for example, to misdemeanors.
Overall our criminal justice system still requires great deal of attention and accountability. It starts from the sentencing laws where we permit prosecutors to bring charges for very long sentences, which then puts the defendant in a very weak position because they're very likely to want to plead guilty and negotiate something smaller relative to what could be this huge sentence. Then, you stack on top of that, that we fund public defender offices and indigent defense really insufficiently so that public defenders rarely have the time to properly investigate and do the work to give the person a proper defense.
All of that then compounds with the racial and economic inequalities more broadly in our society, plus at each step of the criminal justice system, to produce the racial inequality we have in our criminal justice system, where the rates at which African-Americans most especially, but people of color, in general, and especially, Black people, but also Latinos and others, is just out of control. The rates of incarceration and the racial inequalities in that incarceration.
For me, that's a big priority is the top-to-bottom work we're doing on reimagining public safety and the role of police, and the role of incarceration and really narrowing those functions. We're working to, for example, get non-police responses for mental health crises or to respond to our neighbors who are facing and living unhoused. Then on the other end, when there are convictions and where there are criminal penalties to really prioritize rehabilitation and treatment whenever possible instead of incarceration. Those are some of our priorities and some of the work we're doing right now.
"I think the era that we're in now is one where a lot of really cherished rights are under direct attack and a lot of the gains of an earlier generation, the people who came up through the civil rights generation, the people who fought for and secured the right to abortion, to contraception, et cetera, are under direct attack. I think this is the period where we all have to speak up the way Fred Korematsu spoke up with vigor, and in unity."
[00:24:50] Host: Would you mind giving us a little history of your journey to your role as executive director?
[00:24:57] Abdi Soltani: My family are from Iran, my mom and dad, both. In 1973, my mom and dad had a fellowship to the United States when my mom was pregnant with me. Their plan had been to be here for a few months, and then that my mom would return to Iran for me to be born there. After some time had passed and my mom went to a doctor for a checkup to return to Iran, the doctor said she's too far in this pregnancy and that I was to be born here in the United States.
The 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution says that all persons born in the United States are citizens of the United States, so that's how I was born a citizen of this country. I grew up in Iran until the Iranian Revolution when my parents decided that we would leave. I came back to the United States when I was nine years old as a child, immigrating as a citizen. I grew up on the East Coast in Massachusetts, and then I moved to California for college in the early '90s.
At that time, California was really the epicenter of not only of the earthquakes in the United States but really of a major demographic change that was taking place in our state in a political backlash to that demographic change that expressed itself in anti-immigrant Prop 187, the Three Strikes ballot measure that really expanded our prison system, the Anti-Affirmative Action ballot measure. I got my start in that era working to organize communities, get out to vote against those ballot measures. Throughout my time, early in my career, I worked as a community organizer for a grassroots organization called Californians for Justice, and the ACLU was often our legal partner in that work.
I joined the ACLU as a member soon after 9/11, actually, but I had been working alongside the ACLU as a community partner and really admired the organization and its work. In 2009, I came to the ACLU of Northern California as its executive director, but I'd had a couple of decades of previous work alongside-- well, a decade and a half of previous work alongside the ACLU as my partner. What I really love about the mission of this organization really goes back to what I think animated Ernest Besig, which is the idea that every person is deserving of the dignity, the fair treatment, the due process, the equal protection of the law that should be afforded by the Constitution of the United States. Most often, when the government fails to uphold that promise, it's people like Fred Korematsu, who are the ones who uphold the promise themselves until the rest of us catch up, until the country catches up. I think the era that we're in now is one where a lot of really cherished rights are under direct attack and a lot of the gains of an earlier generation, the people who came up through the civil rights generation, the people who fought for and secured the right to abortion, to contraception, et cetera, are under direct attack. I think this is the period where we all have to speak up the way Fred Korematsu spoke up with vigor, and in unity.
"I draw a lot of strength and inspiration by what I see happening in countries throughout the world where people are standing up to defend their fundamental human dignity and human rights. I think in that context, it's especially incumbent upon us here in the United States to fight for and protect our basic civil liberties and civil rights."
[00:28:25] Host: I think I'm going to end with that, but I am curious, Abdi, with all of your expertise and this passion behind the work that you do fighting for civil liberties here in America and your Iranian heritage, how have you been affected when you hear about the human rights violations in Iran, knowing there isn't an ACLU equivalent to safeguard the citizens?
[00:28:50] Abdi Soltani: When I think about the work that the ACLU does, it certainly is connected to the Constitution of the United States. That Constitution, its best parts, are expressions of human freedom and human equality that have roots in every country, that have roots in every culture, that have roots in every people's history all over planet Earth. In each of those places, there are traditions and current movements that are about protecting those fundamental dignity of every human being. We see that throughout the world.
I draw a lot of strength and inspiration by what I see happening in countries throughout the world where people are standing up to defend their fundamental human dignity and human rights. I think in that context, it's especially incumbent upon us here in the United States to fight for and protect our basic civil liberties and civil rights. When we see the insurrection of January 6th in Washington DC, it sets an example of what is happening to the rule of law in the United States, and soon after we saw movements unfolding in Brazil that I think echoed a lot of what happened in January 6th in the United States.
My focus is on holding our whether it's the local governments of Northern California or the State of California, or the government of the United States accountable to those principles because that's where I feel I can make the biggest difference given where I am right now. The one thing I would add. As an Iranian American, I work every day to protect the rights of all people. There are times when, as a community, we become the focus of the civil liberties issue alongside other people from the Muslim countries or our neighboring countries.
That certainly happened after 9/11, when in response to 9/11, the United States government passed the Patriot Act and adopted really big, broad surveillance and other policies that affected all Americans, but certainly were targeted to people from countries in the Middle East. Then again, when Donald Trump was elected president and he implemented the Muslim ban, Iran was one of the countries that was affected by that policy. Interestingly, now, state legislatures are passing these laws barring people from certain countries from buying property there including Chinese, Iranians, and North Koreans, and Russians.
When the rights issue most directly affects our own communities, we certainly hear about it from our family members and our neighbors. What I appreciate about the ACLU is that it's there for everyone defending the rights of everyone and we can do it through mutual solidarity rather than just for one community or another community.
[00:31:49] Host: We want to thank Abdi Soltani and the ACLU. For more information, visit aclunc.org. Chapters podcast was produced by Past Forward and made possible with support from Chapman University and California Civil Liberties Public Education Program, a state-funded grant project of the California State Library. For more information, visit Pastforward.org, Chapman.edu, and Library.ca.gov.
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