It's already a time-worn cliché when we say that the election of Barack Obama is historic. I still like saying it. Let me share some of my personal reflections on why this election seems historic and hopeful for a sometimes jaded Executive Director.
Like many of you on Tuesday night, I was celebrating the end of the Bush era and the beginning of a historic one. My partner and I went to four festive and fun election parties that night. And then while lying in bed that night, excitedly talking about the world, we reflected on what that night's election meant for us.
My partner remarked that he was born in 1954, and that the year he was born, African-American little boys like him were still legally put in "separate but equal" schools. Then Brown vs. Board of Education changed all that. And today, an African-American ascends to the highest office of the greatest nation. I remarked that when I was a little boy in the Bronx public housing projects, I never thought I could be president of ANYTHING when I grew up. I only believed I could go to college when I was a high school sophomore after receiving a letter telling me I was offered early admission at a community college. That was the first day I realized I would not have to be a waiter like my father who came from Puerto Rico and worked at the Warwick Hotel for 39 years. I told my partner that my Mom still proudly tells me that I was always smart, ambitious, and focused on school. But I never aspired for anything more than a job like my dad's because I never thought it was possible. My dad was the only great role model I knew and I wanted to be just like him.
On Tuesday, all the African-American, Latino, poor of all races, and disenfranchised of all countries got the best of role models. Everyone knows who the U.S. president is, and now literally billions of little boys and girls who may have otherwise set their sights too low will invariably set them higher. If nothing more happens (and our collective job is to make sure a lot more happens), change will indeed happen by having a President Barack Obama inspire new generations of little boys and girls to write, "I want to be President when I grow up." No one will dare ridicule them because of the color of their skin, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, or convince them that the odds are insurmountable. Tuesday inspired many, but the best of those we inspired we won't know for generations to come.
For our generation, however, we have to help realize the greatness that President Obama represents. It's not all on him. He needs us. He has two raging wars, a failing economy where good folks are losing their homes and can't drive their cars because they don't have the cash to go the pump, and where they avoid going to the doctor because they can't afford the bills that will come in the mail. Those are not ACLU priorities, but they are American priorities that President Obama confronts. Solutions to these problems won't be easy, as he will have to contend with well-moneyed lobbyists from pharmaceuticals, oil companies and military contractors opposing him at every turn. Solutions to those issues will require partisan horse trading with Republicans and Democrats alike — and I worry that he will have to water down what he wants and ultimately give up the Progressive Caucus to get the Blue Dogs and Conservative/Moderate Wing of Republican party, as well as the "Independent" likes of Joe Lieberman (smile).
But our issues and our top agenda are easy by comparison. He doesn't have to contend with lobbyists in client-bought Ferragamos. Our issues won't require partisan horse-trading, congressional action, faux hearings and bipartisan committees that deliberate but never deliver.
Our top issue — closing down Gitmo and shutting down the military commissions — can be done as soon as he lifts his left hand, picks up the new presidential pen and signs an executive order closing Gitmo and ending the military commissions once and for all. Call me naive, but I honestly believe he wants to do it. He promised us that on the campaign trail, and I believe it was more than an empty promise. I believe he knows what he needs to do to restore the America we believe in, to get us on back on track, to give us back our America, an America we never stopped believing in but have sorely missed for the past eight years.
With a stroke of his pen on Day One, a good, courageous president can do that — as long as he listens to himself and to our pleas. As long as he doesn't listen to the centrist and DLC types who tell him, "It's too complicated." "It's tougher than it looks." "Take your time." "We need message discipline — you don't want to do what Clinton did with gays in the military. The nation wasn't ready."
But what these so-called experts might forget is that America IS ready. The world is ready. And we need a courageous, optimistic president ready to say back to them, "I don't want America to live with the stain of President Bush's Guantánamo prison camp and his flawed commissions for one day longer. I'm closing them today. You tell me how we are going to accomplish that and begin cleaning up the mess we inherited."
They're not likely to give him a solution — just their view of the realpolitik. They may play for time, and "get back to him" as he turns his attention elsewhere. But the solution to the stain on America's pride is in fact really easy: criminally charge all the Guantánamo detainees for whom the government has good evidence. Those we can't charge, you have to release. For those being tried in kangaroo military commissions, transfer them to federal criminal courts or to courts governed by the U.S. Code of Military Justice. Those are the best systems of justice in the world where the Constitution still stands for something. Let's use them.
President Obama needs us. Even for the most extraordinary of men like him, his head must be spinning from the "expert" advice he's getting on a range of issues. Other pressing issues will take time, compromise and horse-trading. Our top issue — closing Gitmo and shutting down the military commissions — just requires us to remind him that that's what we want; that we have his back when the critics come after him for doing so. We can tell him that we understand that the best of presidents who want to do the right thing are better able to do so when the public, fans and supporters respectfully demand action. Like Dr. King forcing the hand of JFK. Both their legacies benefited from that pressure. And the nation remembers them fondly, even if there were tensions between them. We understand that. I have to believe President Obama understands that.
So let's get to work to help Mr. Obama be the best president ever. A courageous commander-in-chief, who tells West Wing advisors sipping lattes in Italian calfskin loafers what they have to do, rather than ask the George Bush question, "What should we do?"
In today's New York Times, we're running a full-page ad urging President-Elect Obama to close Guantánamo Bay and shut down the military commissions on his first day in the White House. Take a look at the ad.
Today, we're also launching the first in a powerful series of short videos produced by filmmaker Robert Greenwald, the award-winning director and producer of documentaries including "Outfoxed" and "Unconstitutional: The War on Our Civil Liberties." Check out the first video now. You can find Robert's video on closegitmo.com.
We're hosting an open Town Hall Meeting on Thursday, November 13, when concerned citizens from all across the nation will gather via teleconference to brainstorm how we help Barack Obama take the steps we all want towards freedom on Day One. We can help him do the right thing, we can give him cover and we can respond to his advisors that it not as hard to close Gitmo and shut down Bush's military commissions as we're being told. We can't wait. The world can't wait. Our America can't wait. We want it back and need him to get us back on track.
You are invited to this strategy session to help the president do the right thing that's in his gut. Go to www.aclu.org/townhall for more information and to sign up.
For eight years, patriotic Americans have led the battle against the most un-American policies in recent history. The Bush administration created a prison camp at Guantánamo — a place where they claimed the law didn't apply. They have detained hundreds of men without charge or trial, prosecuted others in unconstitutional military commissions and authorized torture.
Now, you can help us and our new president seize a dramatic opportunity for progress. You can help this historic president make history on Day One — not a day too soon. Before the weeds and vines of politics-as-usual creep over our hope and smother its light, let's come together and demand a new beginning and a new day — on the first day. We can and will close Gitmo, and we can shut down the un-American military commissions. It takes a president, but he needs his people. Not his advisors.
Help us reach him. Help President-elect Obama. Help America.
If not for us, do it for those legions of little boys and girls who now have a role model they believe in. Let's not lose their hope in him, in us, and let's not let their incipient hope in themselves dissipate. Hope is too hard won. And too easily lost.