Washington (AFP) – The night Donald Trump took the White House in a shock electoral victory ushered in a new US political reality — and drove the American Civil Liberties Union into the resistance.
Since then, the venerable non-profit group has been riding a wave of anti-administration anger to position itself as one of the most high-profile adversaries of the US president.
It was among the favorites this week for the Nobel Peace Price that was eventually won by the nuclear disarmament campaign group ICAN.
The ACLU has been at the forefront of historic liberal struggles, from the internment of Japanese-Americans to abortion rights.
Long a thorn in the side of the US establishment, the organization got a shot in the arm after Trump’s victory.
Three days after the real estate magnate’s stunning win, the ACLU took out a full-page advertisement in The New York Times, warning the then president-elect it was “ready to fight” with “full firepower” against policies seen as an encroachment on rights.
Since then, the non-profit group has been riding the wave of anti-administration anger to position itself as one of the president’s most high-profile adversaries.
“Candidate Trump had promised to engage in various actions that we concluded were unconstitutional and we titled it: ‘We’ll see you in court,'” said David Cole, the group’s legal director.
“It became kind of our moniker.”
Indeed, the popular New York Times crossword even included the slogan as a clue in one of its puzzles: “Group that promised Trump ‘We’ll see you in court.'”
From Trump’s travel ban to a decree barring transgender troops and the president’s controversial probe into election integrity, the ACLU has invited the commander-in-chief to the ring, gloves raised.
“The fight is on,” reads the banner on the website of the organization, which has hit Trump with some deafening blows in his first year as president.
When a federal appeals court maintained injunctions against his controversial anti-immigration measure — which targeted citizens from several predominantly Muslim countries — Trump lashed out with the Twitter equivalent of a shout: “SEE YOU IN COURT.”
“He had stolen our moniker,” Cole remembers.
Since the 2016 election, the ACLU — which boasts some 300 lawyers — has quadrupled its membership from 400,000 to 1.6 million, and watched donations to the tune of over $80 million fill its coffers.
– ‘Freedom can’t protect itself’ –
That war chest has allowed the group to expand its initiatives working for those sectors of society targeted by the Republican president’s policies: minorities, migrants, detainees and Muslims, among others.
Officially, the ACLU supports causes including the right to abortion, religious liberties and equal rights regardless of gender, and opposes the death penalty and lengthy prison sentences.
On other issues, its stances can be less predictable: the ACLU is opposed to campaign finance limits or establishing a national registry of firearms owners.
The group also stood with veterans who wanted images of the Confederate flag — considered by many Americans a racist symbol — on the license plates of their cars.
The ACLU is based in Manhattan, with local branches nationwide but its legal headquarters are located on Washington’s major artery K Street, where lobbyists, think tanks and defense groups are concentrated.
Founded in 1920 by a small group of activists opposed to the mass deportations of leftists and anarchist militants under US attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer, the ACLU’s national logo includes an image of Lady Liberty’s crown.
“Because Freedom Can’t Protect Itself,” reads its motto.
The organization’s nearly century-long history is punctuated by key trials, victories and struggles fundamental to civil rights in the United States: the right to teach evolution theory (1925), the fight against Japanese-American internment camps (1942), the end of racial segregation in public schools (1954) and the right to have an abortion (1973).
More recently, the ACLU has been battling for LGBTQ rights, to expose CIA torture, keep classrooms secular and against government surveillance enabled under former president George W. Bush following the attacks of September 11, 2001.
And the group has courted criticism, too, for defending the right of neo-Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan group to demonstrate, or backing the refusal of Jehovah’s Witnesses to salute the American flag.