Human rights leaders convene at Rutgers for 'Moving Forward' town hall
Prominent human rights leaders gathered at Rutgers this past Wednesday for an open forum and discussion regarding the state of civil liberties during the presidency of Donald J. Trump.
During the town hall titled “Moving Forward: Defending Civil Liberties and Human Rights,” civil rights advocates called on the Rutgers community to continue in their fight for equality.
Undergraduate Academic Affairs (UAA) partnered with the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL), the Africana Studies Department, the Department of American Studies, the Department of Latino and Caribbean Studies and the Department of Women's and Gender Studies to host the community gathering on March 22 in the Rutgers Academic Building on the College Avenue campus.
Moderated by Radhika Balakrishnan, a professor in the Department of Women's and Gender Studies, and faculty director at CWGL, “Moving Forward” provided a platform for the Rutgers community to speak directly about current civil rights issues with the select group of leaders from human rights organizations across the country.
“It is an incredible honor for me to be here,” Balakrishnan said. “Not only because these are the leaders of the human rights movement in the country and the world, but also because they happen to be my very close friends. That’s actually how I got them to agree to come here together.”
The panel of three included civil rights organizers Executive Director at Amnesty USA Margaret Huang, Executive Director at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Anthony Romero and Executive Director at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) Vince Warren.
Balakrishnan began the evening by introducing the honored guests and their accomplishments.
Afterward, she held a conversation with each leader regarding the current state of affairs within their respective organization. During the discussion, Huang described the current status of Amnesty USA.
“Amnesty launched the ‘America I Believe In’ campaign last summer because of the events and rhetoric during the election,” Huang said. “As an international human rights organization, we have a very clear policy about impartiality. Because of this, there were outrageous lies being spread on the campaign trail that we were not necessarily able to directly refute.”
Huang describes the Amnesty USA campaign as a proactive way of responding to threats against human rights while maintaining a neutral stance in American politics. She said the campaign’s goal was to remind American citizens of the values they hold by sharing pictures of themselves with fellow Americans that they believed in.
While the initial effort was designed to play a part on the campaign trail, Huang said the campaign has remained active to support people speaking out against human rights abuse during the Trump administration. Romero echoed Huang’s words and said that the ACLU has been compiling its legal opposition against Trump in the wake of the election.
“After the election, many in the establishment, including myself, were surprised,” he said. “At the ACLU, we were more prepared for a Trump presidency by taking everything he said seriously and literally. In June and July of the summer, we prepared a very early legal analysis of all of Trump’s promises as a candidate.”
Romero said Trump’s own words on the campaign trail ultimately resulted in a victory for the ACLU in regards to the first immigration executive order. He said that in characterizing the immigration order as a “Muslim Ban” during the campaign, Trump sank his own policy by relabeling it as a “travel ban.”
Romero said the president is making his job easy by trying to pass blatantly unconstitutional laws.
Warren discussed fighting on the front lines of the immigration debate. He said the CCR has been fighting Trump’s executive orders since the second they were filed. Warren said that while the CCR might not win every case in regards to immigration, he believes in success without a victory.
“At the CCR, we fight power, especially the egregious power we see today,” he said. “But we also build power with movement groups. It’s in that context that our immigration work has happened. And when it comes to these immigration issues, there is always a coinciding foreign policy issue at hand.”
Yet Warren said the biggest threat the United States faces today is not an external threat but an internal one.
“The rhetoric of criminalization surrounding immigrant and minority communities is so deeply hurtful and dangerous,” he said. “It is essentially enabling and empowering a massive set of deportation mechanisms. It has happened before and if we’re not vigilant, it can happen again.”
Balakrishnan discussed the importance of hosting events like “Moving Forward” at Rutgers during the Trump era. She said that it is astounding how UAA was able to bring three leaders of the most monumental civil rights organizations of this country together alongside the Rutgers community.
“These leaders have never been on a panel together before,” Balakrishnan said. “The fact that we could get them to speak together for the first time was not only important to them, but to us as well. Sometimes starting the conversation is the hardest part of the battle.”
During the town hall, Balakrishnan said that giving students access to the leaders of these civil liberties organizations is a key part of affecting positive change in the surrounding community.
“Moving Forward” was intended to bring the Rutgers community together through civil political discourse, he said.
According to UAA, it was met with incredible success as the event sold out. Many rallies, conferences and town halls have been held in the wake of the election and on March 25, Rutgers will host the Women’s Leadership Conference, with hopes of continuing the conversation started by Balakrishnan.
“In terms of Rutgers, it is important that we were able to bring the conversation to our community,” she said. “When we host influential leaders here in New Brunswick, we are expanding the discussion to include the Rutgers community. It is essential that students and faculty have a way to make their voice heard to the leaders at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Daniel Israel is a junior in the School of Arts and Sciences. He is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum.