It Takes a Cuban

After a legendary career as president of the Miami ACLU, John de Leon is heading even further south

It brought home several things: the disparity between justice for African Americans and whites, that kids who are involved in this stuff at the age of fifteen or sixteen don't have an understanding of the full moral repercussions of their actions, and that they can be rehabilitated.

In another case that really stands out, I had a fourteen-year-old African-American male charged with burglary. [He] had absolutely no familial or structural support in his life. The judge said, "Listen, there ain't nothing out there for this kid, so for the safety of the community, let's ship him off to adult court."

Based on our experience, we knew nothing but bad could come [from] sending a fourteen-year-old kid with no family support to jail. His only coping mechanism was going to be dealing with adult criminals. He'd have no support when he got out. He ended up being involved in the attempted murder of somebody by the age of sixteen. We created a crime. We created circumstances that led to further victimization in our community.

Acrimonious as it may have been, the Los Van Van concert was a step forward for Miami
Steve Satterwhite
Acrimonious as it may have been, the Los Van Van concert was a step forward for Miami
Acrimonious as it may have been, the Los Van Van concert was a step forward for Miami
Steve Satterwhite
Acrimonious as it may have been, the Los Van Van concert was a step forward for Miami

John de Leon says two of his most memorable cases while at the ACLU were his advocacy on behalf of nine students from Killian High School, arrested and suspended for publishing a satirical pamphlet; and opposition to the so-called Cuba ordinance passed by the county commission to cut off public funds for groups with ties to Cuba and prevent the island's artists from performing in public facilities.

Why those two?

Killian because it was a precursor to a lot of stuff that is happening in terms of the rights of students. Given the zero tolerance after Columbine, these are issues we will have to deal with around the state. I think Killian is critical, because the way we train students in what their rights are translates into how they're going to impose those rights when they become leaders and full citizens.

When totalitarian tactics [like the strip searches of the Killian Nine] are used against students and are met with approval by other students and authority figures, people think those tactics are okay. That's going to translate into how our country will be run. When people come into schools with those [metal detector] wands and tell kids to line up against the wall and it's okay; when they make kids go through metal detectors to their classrooms; when they write things, are arrested for it, and the courts say it's okay, you are getting on to a very dangerous slope. So yes, Killian was important.

The Cuba ordinance, I think, is a milestone. Four or five years ago people were calling me up, afraid to say publicly the Cuban ordinance needed to be repealed. It was really offensive to me to live in this community and think that people thought they would lose their funding because they [took a position like that]. It was a case that finally [stopped] our government from picking and choosing who could perform in public. The folks who had the courage to take a position on that issue all feel good about having done so.

But what is wrong with politicians deciding how tax dollars should be spent in public facilities?

Ultimately government is the will of the majority. The government should not dictate who I see, or what you see, or what anyone else sees or hears in a democracy! The moment that happens, there is a tyranny of the majority. People need to understand that. [Examples] of that are people being afraid to speak or communicate publicly about issues they hold strong opinions on. When someone calls me in the United States of America in the year 1998, and says they are afraid for their livelihood if they say something they'd be free to express in any other community in America, it's frightening. Those are the consequences of shutting down free speech. It goes way beyond Los Van Van or Manolin playing some concert.

Under your direction the ACLU has built a real presence in the inner city, including a recently opened resource center at 4055 NW Seventeenth Ave., in the Brothers of the Same Mind building. What is the role of the organization regarding issues of race and politics?

I think the establishment is clearly trying to criminalize African Americans. If not intentionally, they are de facto trying to do that. They want to disenfranchise as many people as possible. We have these awful anti-democratic laws that call for individuals who have pleaded to some sort of felony and have completed their time from ever voting again or participating in democracy. These laws disproportionately affect African Americans in Florida. There are [hundreds of thousands] of people who can't vote anymore.... Given the results of the last election, when 500 votes made the difference, [several hundred thousand] votes certainly makes a difference. And believe me, the Republican legislators know which votes they are deliberately [discounting] in future elections through disenfranchising people.

There are issues of racial profiling, which have always been here but have come to light now, involving not only motorist stops but stopping people for "shopping while black," as they say; "walking while black" in their neighborhoods; "breathing while black" -- in essence being black in America. The ACLU is an organization dedicated to preventing this sort of abuse.

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