When Faiz Shakir joined the American Civil Liberties Union this past January, the organization was still preparing for the inauguration of Donald Trump. Months prior to Shakir’s arrival, the ACLU released a letter addressed to Trump, threatening to sue him if he acted on several of his campaign promises.
He did, and they did. Since his first week in office, the ACLU has been fighting the Trump Administration in court. But in conjunction with these legal battles, the ACLU has been working to build up its political arm in Washington and around the country.
That’s where Shakir comes in. He’s the National Political Director for the ACLU and he was in Milwaukee recently to deliver a speech at the ACLU of Wisconsin’s Bill of Rights celebration.
As a political director, he believes it's his job to recruit and support activists in communities throughout the country.
"Our power is generally with people, it's with activists all across the country who are eager and fired up for a new direction for our country. They see an assault on civil rights and civil liberties like never before in their lifetimes and they want to do something about it," says Shakir.
He continues, "So coming in as a new political director in January of this year, I felt like it was really critical that the ACLU needs to build a grassroots mobilization program. It needs to be more communicative with laypeople on the street to give activists an opportunity to engage in these fights to do something to affiliate with the ACLU to accomplish our mission."
The ACLU has taken heat for their continued defense of white supremacists groups. In court, they provided representation for the "Unite the Right" organizers of that rallied in Charlottesville, which resulted in a white supremacist murdering a counter-protester. Shakir says the incident in Charlottesville has made them re-analyze how they will vet groups in the future, but the ACLU remains committed to defending free speech - no matter how deplorable.
He says, "If you really believe in free speech for all, you're going to be tested in that belief by others who are going to pick the least popular group and push that group onto you and say, 'Hey, you want free speech for that person?'"
But Shakir says the ACLU does have a strict line: they will not represent groups that are advocating violence. As an example, he explains the ACLU doesn't provide representation to groups that carry guns at protests.
"If you're coming to instigate violence, that's not speech. That's actually repressing speech, that's intimidating, that is going to stop people from exercising their First Amendment right," he says.