Reflections on True Patriotism
When I began work as Executive Director of the ACLU of Colorado in 2012, my sister-in-law gave me a copy of a bright red bound pamphlet titled, “The True Patriot,” by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer, both sons of immigrants, both proud to be American. I have kept it on my desk ever since as a reminder of my charge.
It is an honor to work here, since few organizations exemplify true patriotism more fully than the American Civil Liberties Union, defending the Constitution of the United States for nearly a hundred years. The ACLU has fought in the courts to ensure that the promises of the Bill of Rights are made real, not just words on a piece of paper, and real for all people in this land, not just for some. The essential values of the Constitution have shone like jewels from the beginning, while the great struggle of our nation has been to overcome the evils of slavery, discrimination, the exclusion of women from the political franchise, and other limitations upon who could enjoy the rights of the Constitution fully.
The ACLU was founded in 1920, soon after the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League, the same year women won the right to vote. Until then, the Supreme Court had never ruled for freedom of speech—it took a case from the ACLU to make those words real. Since then, the ACLU has argued more cases before the Supreme Court than any other private organization. The result is Miranda rights, the right to an attorney, students’ rights of expression, Loving v. Virginia and LGBTQ marriage equality, rights of privacy, reproductive rights, voting rights, and countless other victories extending the promises of the Bill of Rights to more people, never fewer.
Now, in a way I could not have anticipated four years ago, we find ourselves at the ACLU in the center of a profound struggle to defend our nation’s most essential principles, from due process to equal protection to rights of protest, separation of Church and State, and other basic First Amendment rights. In the face of threats of renewed torture and intrusive government surveillance, racially-biased policing and curtailed voting rights, attacks on the press and the judiciary, disrespect for people facing disability or economic distress, and dismantling of the rights of women, religious minorities, immigrants and refugees—ultimately a threat to everyone’s rights—I am called to make the stand of a true patriot for the values at the core of the Constitution.
Fortunately, I am not alone. The ACLU itself has a presence on the ground in every state, as well as a powerful national organization. We work with dozens of partner organizations and thousands of people who just want to keep the doors of our democracy open. At the Women’s March on January 21, millions of people poured into the streets to speak out against potential tyranny. (Showing up matters, especially when insecure leaders are obsessed with crowd sizes.) Then, when immigrants and Muslim refugees came under attack, protests sprung up at airports across our nation. In Denver alone, about three hundred people turned out for a protest organized in a matter of hours—Muslims, Christians, Jews, and people of many other religious perspectives; representatives of organizations from Planned Parenthood and COLOR to Common Cause and Black Lives Matter; lawyers and legislators and little children—all gathering for peaceful protest on behalf of suddenly-banned immigrants and refugees.
Led in amazing fashion by young Syrian-American Amal Kassir, I have never seen a more patriotic gathering than that protest at the airport Saturday night. She read the words of the First Amendment and other passages in the Constitution. We recited the Pledge of Allegiance together as a crowd. We sang, “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land” with passion and love. Flags were in abundance along with expressions of solidarity with immigrant families, desperate refugees, legal residents suddenly being detained, and all those who have ever dreamed the American dream or cried at the words displayed on the Statue of Liberty. Young and old chanted together for our nation at its best, not our nation at its worst. The gathering was powerful and it remained peaceful, pausing for those who prayed, and police arrested no one.
When an initial court victory by the ACLU and other organizations was announced that evening, the crowds cheered. A continued outpouring of support for the ACLU is inspiring hope and equipping us to stand even taller in defense of the constitutional rights of every person in this land. Along with our partners—for we all need each other more than ever—we will defend this democracy with all our might.
Who, after all, is the true patriot? What better way to honor the sacrifice of the immigrants to this already-populated land who fought for freedom from the decrees of a king or the soldiers who fought for abolition of slavery in the Civil War than to fight now for immigrants and indigenous peoples alike, for the descendants of slaves, and for anyone detained by decree or deprived of freedom today? Seriously, does it honor the generation that fought fascism in World War II to use slogans with a fascist history like “America First”? Is jingoistic and narrowly exclusive nationalism really patriotism at all, or is true patriotism found in the vigorous defense of our core Constitutional values and the welcoming embrace of all who are or aspire to be Americans?
We must not deny the present danger. It is time to rise to the occasion. To those who are stepping forward today for the ACLU and other defenders of liberty and justice for all, I say thank you for being a true American and a true patriot.