ACLU meeting focuses on racial justice

03/12/08 Jamie Kidder
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The Tampa ACLU held a meeting on racial justice at the John F. Germany Library in Tampa yesterday. The speakers touched on subjects pertaining to racial injustice, such as felon disenfranchisment and educational inequality.

The Florida ACLU is one of the fastest growing ACLU affiliates in the nation, with local chapters in Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Tampa, Gainsville, Jacksonville, Tallahassee and Pensacola.

The Tampa chapter of the ACLU has been involved with a number of events in the area ranging from demonstrations, parades, theater productions to an event at the USF campus protesting torture.

During Tuesday's presentation, Mike Pheneger, chairman of the Tampa ACLU chapter, borrowed a dummy from the Red Cross and waterboarded it "several times." It was at this point that Pheneger revealed that he was an active army intelligence officer, and he later stated in an interview that he was in the armed forces for thirty years.

Dennis Parker, a lawyer for the ACLU, spoke about the "school to prison pipeline," a trend in which the public school system is pushing youth out of the classrooms and into the criminal justice system though the prioritization of law enforcement over education. Minority students are especially vulnerable to legal mistreatment.

Parker also touched on some of the problems caused by the No Child Left Behind Act. In New York, many school principles will remove low-scoring students from schools in order to boost their ratings. In Florida, students are more likely to be suspended during FCAT season in order to remove them from the testing pool.

The heavy police presence in schools is another key factor in the criminalization of young people. In a study conducted by the New York ACLU, it was found that officers lacked the proper training and were often abusive to students. Parker cited cases of older officers using their position of authority to make sexual advances towards students, and officers verbally abusing students, calling them "little rikers."

More and more money is going to disciplining students, and less money is going to educating them, according to Parker. The ACLU study also found that the faculty's judgment on how to discipline their students plays less of a role now that schools have on-campus police. Parker made reference to an incident in which a school principal was arrested in front of his students and staff while protesting the arrest of his students who were involved in an altercation.

Muslima Lewis is director of Racial Justice and Voting Rights for the Florida ACLU. She was the subject of a story in today's Miami Herald regarding her work with the ACLU.

Lewis works to have the civil liberties of felons restored. She has helped felons plead their case to Charlie Crist and his cabinet, who act as the clemency board. A spokesperson for the board calls Lewis "incredibly fair," according to the Herald.

Even under the new rules, the restoration of civil rights is not an automatic process.

A member of the audience asked why the ACLU hasn't tried to put forth a ballot initiative to change the way that felon's civil rights are restored. According to Muslima Lewis and Pam Hengle, it's not the right time for it. WMNF asked Hengle when the right time would be. She said that during an election year, elected officials are less likely to make drastic changes to policy. According to Hengle, the best time to approach the issue would be during an non-election year.

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