November is American Heritage Month

In Nevada, our nineteen federally recognized tribes are located throughout our state, with a concentration in the North. 1.6% of Nevada’s population identified as Native American in the 2010 census, as compared with 1.2% of the country overall. The Native Nevada community experienced a great loss with the October 29th death of 38 year old Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Chairman Wayne Burke, who was only the first Native American to serve on the Nevada Tourism Commission and a veteran Marine who took steps to improve the educational conditions of the children in his tribe.

In 2011, Governor Sandoval joined three other states in proclaiming an “American Indian Day,” but efforts to recognize a day in honor of our country’s first inhabitants were afoot as early as 1915. In 1990, George H.W. Bush declared November “Native American Heritage Month,” and many communities utilize the month of November as an opportunity to educate the public about the contributions and conditions of Native Americans. 

Across the United States, Native Americans living both on and off reservations continue to have the highest rates of poverty, drug use, and unemployment, and the lowest educational attainment rates of any minority group in the country. Basic discrimination issues surrounding the “Indian mascot” theme still arise, such as No Doubt’s “Looking Hot” video, which was released this past Friday and quickly pulled from circulation. Struggles with voting rights and practicing religious beliefs in public institutions like schools, whether wearing a medicine bag or remaining seated for the pledge of allegiance, also pervade Native daily lives.

Article I of the U.S. Constitution excludes states from “Indian affairs” by permitting only Congress the power “[t]o regulate commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes . . . .” This Article, combined with the fourteenth amendment’s particular exclusion of “Indians not taxed,” denied Native Americans the right to vote until Congress declared their U.S. citizenship in 1924. Long after 1924, states continued to suppress, deny, and creatively redistrict in order to dilute the voting rights of Native communities.

During November’s Native American Heritage Month, consider the links between the history of internal displacement and denial of civil liberties to our Native communities, and the resulting legacy of inequality and suffering. What structures, social and political, have kept this oppression in place, and what steps can be taken to rectify our mistakes? Attend a gathering of your local tribes and perhaps you will discover our native heritage.

Trick, Treat, Vote!

Halloween is the time for ghosts, goblins, witches, evil spells, and…voter suppression?

ACLU state affiliates across the country are receiving report after report of mishandling of voter registration forms, incorrect information given out to ex-felons on regaining voting rights, voter registrations not being recorded at the voter registrars’ office, changes in days and times for early voting, unreasonable identification requirements, and plain old intimidation tactics. Across the country, the ACLU is involved in legal battles to protect the peoples’ right to vote.

In Nevada alone, the ACLU of Nevada disbursed 3,000 voter rights information cards, headlined “Let Me Vote,” over the past few weeks, in both English and Spanish. Across the country, this ACLU affiliate and others have educated voters and potential voters on their right to vote and fighting to protect those rights.

If you have not voted, get out to vote. If you do not know where to vote, contact your local Registrar of Voters or go to canivote.org. If you have problems while voting (or attempting to vote), contact the ACLU of Nevada’s election protection hotline: 702-333-0883. This is not about winning or losing, it is about your right to vote. Boo!

Why Arizona Needs Book Traffickers

If you know know the number of one Arizona legislature bill, it probably is SB 1070, the anti-immigrant bill that mostly thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court. But you also should be aware of Arizona House Bill 2281. Passed by the Arizona House in 2010, then the Senate and signed by Gov. Jan Brewer, the new law bans high school courses that:

  1. Promote the overthrow of the United States Government.
  2. Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.
  3. Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
  4. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

This law was enacted to ensure that Mexican-American studies were banned from the Tucson Unified School District and to “prevent the overthrow of the government” (House Bill 2281).

Tony Diaz, a Librotraficante, Spanish for “book trafficker,” has since pushed against the banning of Mexican-American Studies and has encouraged others to fight against censorship. He has smuggled the very books removed from the Tucson classrooms back in to Arizona. He has also established underground libraries in cities such as Houston, Albuquerque, and San Antonio, to secure public access to works such as Bless me, Ultima, Like Water for Chocolate, and Mexican WhiteBoy.

On Friday, September 21, 2012, communities around the nation gathered together to spread awareness of this outrageous statute by reading passages from the targeted books. Other activities included live theater performances, displays of works of art, and the selling of books. In Las Vegas, the ACLU of Nevada and other organizations hosted a public reading, and Barnes & Noble displayed the books and sold them to the public. Books were also bought and donated to the underground libraries.

When I was a little girl, growing up in my small community of Lovelock, Nevada where everyone knows everyone, I never thought of myself, a Hispanic female, as an outcast. I was always very outgoing and would talk to anyone, and if I felt something was wrong or someone was being treated unfairly, I would be the one to speak up. As a child I would look forward to going to school because I was so excited to hang out with my friends, go to recess, run around and play Red Rover.

Respect for my culture in no way gave me a desire to learn how to “overthrow the government.” The study of our history is crucial to our young blood. With Arizona’s ban of Mexican-American studies in its classrooms, some youths are being deprived of studying their own culture, while others are being denied the chance to learn about a different culture. This ban represents an attack on the heritage and participation of Mexican-Americans in the cultural schools. The Librotraficante movement strives to get Mexican-American studies back into the curriculum of the Tucson Unified School District and to ensure the continued vitality of our cultural history.

We must fight to know our own personal story, but to do that we must also know where we come from. Our ancestors must be recognized and remembered. To suggest that understanding and valuing one’s ethnic background and cultural history somehow undermines her devotion to our political and social institutions represents the worst form of bigotry, and a true form of ignorance.

by Jaqueline Alvarado, a Masters in Social Work Student Intern with the ACLU of Nevada
Jacqueline will graduate from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in May 2013.

National Coming Out Day

This week, members of the LGBTQ community and their allies celebrate National Coming Out Day—an annual observance on October 11th that honors the process of “coming out of the closet” and publicly affirming one’s identity as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer.

As a gay man, I have a confession—I’ve honestly never celebrated NCOD in any meaningful way. I know that coming out is an important and powerful act for many individuals, and as a civil libertarian I think that increased visibility for the LGBT community correlates with the protection of our rights and expansion of our freedom. But still, on a personal level, this annual celebration hasn’t resonated for me in the way it might for others.

This might be because I was one of the lucky ones—when I came out ten years ago, my friends and family were immediately supportive. I was spared the isolation, shame, and rejection that so many suffer when they choose to acknowledge their identity in a public way. So in a way, I’ve been privileged enough to not think very much about coming out, for good or for ill.

But we know that this is not the case for so many others in the LGBT community. Despite the strides we’ve made legally and culturally, the world is not necessarily a safe place for those who choose to come out. Bullying, discrimination, physical harm—these still happen every day to people who’ve done nothing more than exercise their freedom of expression in the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.

At the ACLU we fight for legal rights, which are crucial, but as human beings, I think we also have an inherent need to feel real, to feel understood and accepted. LGBT people are sometimes forced to sacrifice all concepts of security and safety to fulfill these needs. I cannot sit by and shrug my shoulders at that sort of personal risk. Coming out is important, and it must be honored.

So this year, I’m casting off my ambivalence. I will reflect on and celebrate National Coming Out Day—to celebrate those who have found the courage to be themselves, to encourage those who aren’t there quite yet, and to mourn for those who suffered for doing so.

As another human who believes in equality and dignity, I encourage you to join me.

Counterterrorism "Fusion Centers" Threaten Civil Liberties

Last week, the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a two-year bipartisan report (PDF) of 141 pages concluding that the 70 state and local intelligence “fusion centers” have not produced significant, useful information to support federal counterterrorism intelligence efforts.

Nevada has a primary Southern Nevada Counter-Terrorism Center in Las Vegas, and also at least one secondary facility, the Nevada Threat Analysis Center in Carson City. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department generally likes to show off the Las Vegas center, and public relations rhetoric has specifically boasted that Las Vegas’s center is a “model for public-private collaboration.”

We don’t know enough about the Southern Nevada Counter-Terrorism Center to know for sure whether it has done the same job, a better job, or a worse job than other fusion centers around the country in producing actionable intelligence to fight terrorism. That no terrorism has occurred here might be used by some others as evidence that our fusion center is effective. But that same lack of terrorist incidents may mean, at the least, that an anti-terrorism-oriented fusion center in Las Vegas has not been necessary, and may also mean that it is not, and will not be, truly necessary.

The Senate report mentions the Las Vegas center once, apparently as a specific example of a fusion center that is devoting resources to a marginal purpose: 

As state and local entities, the exact missions of individual fusion centers are largely beyond the authority of the Federal Government to determine. Many have chosen to focus their efforts on local and regional crime. In Nevada, the Southern Nevada Counterterrorism Center tracks incidents of violence in schools. However, Federal officials and lawmakers established Federal grant programs for the centers premised primarily on involving fusion centers in Federal efforts to prevent another terrorist attack.

Perhaps the Senate noting that Las Vegas’s center tracks school violence is a “cheap shot” (or perhaps not). In any case, one working assumption by Nevada’s Homeland Security Commission last year was that Las Vegas is, or soon will be, a terrorist target merely because Las Vegas is Las Vegas. In turn, that is clearly based on Commission members’ assumptions that they know how terrorists think (apparently about the tourists and/or sin in Sin City), and that if they were terrorists themselves, they would target Las Vegas. That confidence is absurd on its face. And, except for a few countries in which terrorists routinely try to disrupt daily life (such as Israel), it also is contrary to terrorism’s, post-1976 Olympics worldwide history, which has almost entirely preferred acts that target political or military sites or figures or will immediately have national or international political effects. By those measures, Las Vegas is simply not important enough.

The Senate is concerned that: the Department of Homeland Security, since 2003, has spent somewhere between $283 million and $1.4 billion on fusion centers, no one can come up with a more specific figure, and, essentially, at least $283 million has apparently been just about wasted on anti-terrorism spending that didn’t fight terrorism.

Merely monitoring, discovering, or publicizing wasteful government spending is not within the ACLU’s mission, but as Senator Tom Coburn said, “Instead of strengthening our counterterrorism efforts, they [fusion centers] have too often wasted money and stepped on Americans’ civil liberties.” The ACLU also is concerned with excessive government secrecy, and Sen. Coburn complained that the Department of Homeland Security even impeded the Committee’s investigation, saying of needed documents that DHS “resisted turning them over, arguing that they were protected by privilege, too sensitive to share, were protected by confidentiality agreements, or did not exist at all.”

The Committee’s official press release adds, “The investigation found that DHS intelligence officers assigned to state and local fusion centers produced intelligence of ‘uneven quality – oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens’ civil liberties and Privacy Act protections, occasionally taken from already-published public sources, and more often than not unrelated to terrorism.’”

Unfortunately, wasting huge amounts of money and staff time on supposed anti-terrorist efforts that accomplishes little besides violating Americans’ privacy, lining the pockets of private contractors, and distracting all of us from real threats now is now standard. TSA agents routinely miss weapons and simulated weapons at airports. The FBI, unable to arrest actual terrorists in the US because the FBI doesn’t know where they are, if they exist at all, apparently now devotes massive resources to convincing gullible citizens that they can be and should be terrorists, educating them about and supplying them with simulated weapons, and then – having orchestrated everything – arrest their entrapment victim for conspiracy to commit terrorism. And these fusion centers apparently aren’t accomplishing much of anything. (Meanwhile, the USA still has poorly protected borders and shores, amazingly vulnerable ports, etc.)

Why is all of this happening? Fear and paranoia of some public officials and some citizens. Greed and job preservation efforts among private contractors, and more job preservation efforts among public employees. And, it appears, both technological utopianism (the belief that high tech will solve all problems) and technological determinism (high tech must be used because it can be) at the same historical moment that the CIA, FBI, and much of the rest of federal law enforcement are apparently less able than ever (or at least in a long time) to even understand, let alone infiltrate, authentic terrorist organizations in the USA (if there are any) that pose a credible threat (as opposed to being dim-witted wannabes).

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