ACLU of Illinois Director Colleen Connell Discusses Career

By Megan Anzures, Torch Correspondent

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Photo By Lauren Grimaldi

American Civil Liberties Union Director, Colleen Connell, spoke at Roosevelt University on Oct. 11 as part of the Loundy Human Rights Foundation’s fall speaker series focusing on migration, populism and human rights.

Political science professor Bethany Barratt, the director of the Loundy Human Rights Foundation, introduced Connell to the audience and moderated the discussion.

Connell discussed how the ACLU is currently working to defend the rights of the people under the Trump administration and beyond.

“(We are trying to) push back as effectively as we can on President Trump’s unlawful and unconstitutional initiatives,” Connell said.

The ACLU has been very active in challenging the president’s travel ban against immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries in addition to fighting the ban against transgender people in the military.

In recent years, the ACLU has won cases that protect racial and ethnic communities from being victims in racial profiling. Additionally, they have also improved the Illinois Child Welfare Agency, Illinois mental health system and the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center.

Connell said they have also pushed back against the Department of Justice’s work to police the police department. The ACLU turns 100 years old in 2020, and one the centennial goals, said Connell, is to reduce the amount of people who are incarcerated by 50 percent, especially focusing on people of color.

“We should make no mistake that the criminal justice system has become, quite frankly, the new Jim Crow,” said Connell.

The ACLU is also focusing its efforts on the right to vote by restructuring the security of the voting apparatus. Connell said, “Illinois’ voting apparatus was one of the systems that was penetrated in last year’s election.” She also said that there is substantial evidence that no control was exercised over the votes that were casted and counted due the decentralized system of the apparatus itself.

On the state level, Connell said, the government is “free in many instances to provide more protections for fundamental rights that the federal constitution requires.”

Illinois has a much more updated constitution that, unlike the federal constitution, has a specific protection for gender equality that Connell and the ACLU would like to expand.

The ACLU also reformed policies that allowed for police officers to pick up anyone off the street that is seen with someone who is affiliated with a gang, whether or not they were engaging in criminal activity.

Connell said this law was abused and mainly affected men of color. Connell said the law was repealed and rewritten to say that the person would have to be engaging in a crime or that there must be probable cause involving the person they are picking up.

House Bill 40 was also a significant change that extended coverage for comprehensive reproductive health services, including abortions, for women on Medicaid and on state employer insurance.

The bill also removed an old Illinois state law that said the if the federal court overrules its decision in Roe v. Wade, Illinois would revert back to laws prior to the Supreme Court case. Governor Bruce Rauner signed H.B. 40 amid controversy and dissent from his own political party.

Connell said that although the federal government may not be acting in the interest of the people, the states, Illinois in particular, will continue to reform unjust laws and protect the rights of people.

She also spoke about the Illinois Trust Act, passed by state legislature and signed by Governor Rauner. It makes Illinois a sanctuary state for undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country when they were young despite attempts from the Trump administration to punish sanctuary cities and states.

Connell also gave advice to students and others who feel especially dismayed by the current political climate.

“Devote the part of your life that you can devote to informed advocacy and action to those one, two, three or four issues,” said Connell.

Brittaney Harvey, a psychology and international studies student, said she was impacted by Connell’s advice and devoting one’s self to a couple issues.

“There’s so much that we can do on our own without the action of the federal government, the state, or even sometimes the city,” Harvey said.

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