Resource: Case Study: LCRRA Organizing in Hartford CT
BORDC staff (Executive Director Shahid Buttar and Grassroots Campaign Coordinator Emma Roderick) met LaResse Harvey, an experienced organizer with A Better Way Foundation, at a leadership retreat in upstate New York in February 2010.
LaResse, whose work centers primarily on addressing the harmful effects of the drug war on communities of color in Connecticut, had recently worked with Hartford City Councilor Luis Cotto to pass an ordinance to protect the rights of immigrants in the city. Through her work on the ordinance and with A Better Way Foundation, LaResse had built relationships with many local civil rights and civil liberties groups in the Hartford community.
After hearing about BORDC’s campaign to restore Fourth Amendment rights—a local legislative effort to prohibit suspicionless surveillance and racial, ethnic, religious, and political profiling—LaResse grew interested and agreed to reach out to other allies in Hartford.
Building the coalition
After the retreat, Shahid sent LaResse BORDC’s model ordinance and associated talking points. LaResse reviewed those materials and invited a meeting with other community members. She reached out to immigrants’ rights group Hart of Hartford, a representative from the National Lawyers Guild, Hartford City Councilor Luis Cotto, and other local organizers.
At the meeting with these allies in April 2010, Emma and Shahid explained BORDC’s policy resources and the organizing strategy behind them, and everyone present signed up to support the reforms in Hartford. Councilor Cotto and his aide, Brendan Mahoney, studied BORDC’s model ordinance and introduced a proposal based on it.
Over the course of several weeks, Emma coordinated with Brendan, while also working with LaResse to plan several meetings with the coalition. Through a combination of LaResse’s and BORDC’s outreach, the coalition attracted the support of a wide range of allies, including the following:
- Civil libertarian allies, including the ACLU of Connecticut.
- Civil rights groups, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Connecticut and the state chapter of the NAACP (with support from the NAACP’s national office).
- Faith groups, including the Connecticut Coalition for Peace & Justice.
- Local groups, including Hart of Hartford (representing immigrant communities) and A Better Way Foundation (representing drug policy reform interests).
Supporting the legislation
Councilor Cotto introduced the ordinance to the Hartford Court of Common Council (the city council) in August 2010.
After the ordinance was introduced, the coalition turned out supporters for public hearings and mobilized resources to address legal questions. For instance, despite the Hartford Police Department’s efforts to pack a public hearing in late August with opponents of police accountability, community members who defended the ordinance ultimately outnumbered opponents two to one.
After the hearing, BORDC worked with the coalition to develop proposed amendments to the initial version of the ordinance in order to address some concerns expressed by the Hartford Police Department. In October, when Hartford’s Corporation Counsel circulated a memo challenging the legality of the ordinance, BORDC worked with the ACLU and NAACP to craft a response strategy and recruited a volunteer lawyer to refute the memo.
Led by LaResse, the coalition drafted a letter to the city council in October 2010, signed by numerous local and national groups, in support of the ordinance. The coalition also worked with media outletsand, through that outreach, was able to measurably shift the terms of policy debate in Hartford, garnering significant news attention and bringing together groups who had not previously worked together.
The coalition experienced several setbacks, which required new ideas and some reworking of strategies. First, when the ordinance was referred to Hartford’s legal counsel, the counsel issued the above-mentioned memo that claimed the ordinance’s provisions around surveillance were unconstitutional because they were pre-empted by existing state law.
When the coalition compiled a rebuttal and re-introduced the ordinance in November 2010, Hartford’s legal counsel responded that the city of Hartford could not adopt an ordinance that had anything to do with racial profiling because a state anti-profiling law (the Penn Act, which had been in effect since 1999 but was not enforced) precluded any municipal protections for civil rights. When the coalition pointed out that the state law had proven essentially meaningless—it was not being enforced by the majority of counties in Connecticut, and certainly was not being enforced in Hartford—they were told that this did not matter.
The coalition considered going forward without the blessing of the legal counsel or, alternatively, publicly challenging the legal counsel’s logic (while highlighting the ethically dubious connections between the legal counsel and the chief of police).
In the end, they determined that, given the relationship between the legal counsel and the mayor (who promised to veto any ordinance the legal counsel had not approved), they would need a stronger base of community—not just organizational—support to oppose the legal counsel’s position. Accordingly, the coalition decided that they would first work on raising more awareness in the community about not only the proposed Hartford ordinance, but also the ineffective state anti-profiling law that already existed.
The state legislature
At the same time that the Hartford coalition was planning a way forward, a different effort, spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union (among others) and supported by several members of the coalition, emerged in early 2011 to pass a state amendment to the aforementioned Penn Act that would make the law enforceable. BORDC gave input on the ACLU’s draft of the amendment. During the state legislative session, a portion of the coalition’s efforts went into educating Connecticut residents about the proposed amendment, all the while using it as an opportunity to talk about the problems in Hartford (and the proposed Cotto ordinance as a remedy that was far stronger than the Penn Act amendment).
The coalition held an educational forum in April 2011 with the University of Connecticut School of Social Work, and several coalition members testified before the state legislature in support of the amendment. The coalition made an effort to talk about the ordinance in places where people were talking about the state amendment.
In the end, after passing two different bi-partisan committees, the state amendment was defeated in its final committee in June. Organizers in the coalition were disappointed, but saw the bill’s failure as a symptom of the problem they had been talking about all along: an assumption that the existence of the anti-profiling law, whether enforced or not, was sufficient to address widespread community concerns about profiling.
Ultimately, organizers turned the failure of the statewide bill into an opportunity to speak out for stronger reforms in Hartford.
Working with the police chief
Shortly after the end of the state legislative session, Hartford Police Chief Daryl Roberts contacted Councilor Luis Cotto (the city councilor actively pushing the ordinance). Chief Roberts, in response to months of campaigning by coalition members and others at the state and local levels for racial profiling reforms, had put together an enforceable anti-racial profiling policy for the Hartford Police Department that incorporated elements of the failed Penn Act amendment and elements of the BORDC-backed ordinance. He wanted to hear Cotto’s thoughts, and the thoughts of the coalition, before proceeding. Councilor Cotto shared Chief Roberts’ draft with the coalition and invited comments.
Chief Roberts was responding to the strong campaign that had focused public attention on profiling, and aimed to avoid further controversy over his city’s failing to provide a comprehensive anti-profiling policy in the wake of the unsuccessful Penn Act amendment.
Although members of the coalition had suggestions for Chief Roberts’ draft policy, they felt that, specifically with respect to racial profiling, the policy accomplished what the city ordinance would have achieved had the legal counsel not blocked its passage. In fall 2011, the coalition is continuing to work with Chief Roberts to develop a policy that meets as many of our demands as possible.
Focusing on surveillance
The coalition knew that this policy was not a complete victory: the policy included nothing about suspicionless surveillance. Several of the groups in the coalition had done little work on surveillance in the past, but as result of the relationships they had built with other member organizations and the connections they now saw between surveillance and racial profiling, they agreed unanimously that the campaign was not complete until provisions against surveillance were enacted.
Collaborations between members of the coalition had helped to strengthen the work of the individual organizations involved. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, for example, honored Councilor Cotto at their annual fund-raising banquet in early 2011. Several members of the coalition attended the ACLU’s 90th anniversary party in the Hartford Public Library in fall 2010, and coalition members attended—and spoke at—a spring 2011 press conference organized by LaResse and A Better Way Foundation to announce the founding of LaResse’s newest initiative, the Civic Trust Public Lobbying Foundation.
Organizers revised the original ordinance to focus on domestic surveillance and set to work doing public education around the issue. In June 2011, they held a forum at the Hartford Community Center at which a few dozen people attended —most of them working class African Americans who were new to the issue. LaResse moderated the forum, which included speakers Mongi Dhaouadi from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Sandra Staub from the Hartford ACLU, and Councilor Cotto. BORDC’s Emma Roderick also fielded questions. The attendees were shocked to hear about how the PATRIOT Act, and the policies that followed it, still cause gross infringements on civil rights and liberties. All signed up to be involved in the campaign.
Steps to come
The coalition plans to continue educational forums around the city, traveling to different communities to get the message across in different ways. For instance, they are planning a September 2011 forum at a Muslim community center, at which the focus will be how “anti-terrorism” policies relate to profiling and immigrants’ rights. The coalition enjoys working together to help others make the connections between issues of profiling and surveillance and is excited to continue that work.
The coalition also plans to join the Connecticut Coalition for Peace and Justice at their annual Hope Out Loud festival, an annual celebration and protest that began shortly after September 11, 2001, by hosting a table to spread information about the ordinance and the campaign. Councilor Cotto hopes to introduce a revised ordinance to the council in October and the coalition will continue to work to see that it succeeds. A movement uniting civil rights, immigrants’ rights, and civil liberties groups has emerged around BORDC’s model legislation, and we expect the city council to advance civil rights by approving a version of the proposed ordinance.