It Takes a Cuban

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


John de Leon has been a regular presence at angry meetings about police killings of young black men. Most recently he mourned Nick Singleton, an unarmed Overtown teenager gunned down by Miami police this past May 5 as he ran from a jeep he was suspected of stealing.

Has policing in the inner city improved since McDuffie? What still needs to be done?

Howard Simon, ACLU state executive director, toasts de Leon for bringing Cubans into the ACLU fold
Steve Satterwhite
Howard Simon, ACLU state executive director, toasts de Leon for bringing Cubans into the ACLU fold
Howard Simon, ACLU state executive director, toasts de Leon for bringing Cubans into the ACLU fold
Steve Satterwhite
Howard Simon, ACLU state executive director, toasts de Leon for bringing Cubans into the ACLU fold

I think the fact that the composition of the police department is more reflective of the makeup of this community has helped tremendously. Cops aren't seen as much as an occupying force. Whether they are or they aren't is another issue. I thought the reaction of the police chief [Raul Martinez], in terms of trying to get the community together, was a good sign, and they are reacting a little bit better. All those things are favorable.

There is no mistaking, though, that we haven't done anything institutionally since McDuffie except to change the makeup of the police department. In twenty years they haven't done anything to improve mechanisms by which African Americans and other minorities will feel they can have an impact on abusive police. Twenty years ago the communists were still in power in the Soviet Union, the Berlin Wall was still up, South Africa was ruled by a white minority group.... And we haven't been able to institute any kind of civilian review or citizens investigative panel with subpoena power and oversight? It's pathetic.

My philosophy is that this country has gone through more than 200 years and world wars where people have died because they didn't want the arbitrary use of police power by the government. They died so that the police would not engage in violations of civil rights. They did not die because they wanted to lower crime rates in the inner city. That needs to be ingrained in each of these police officers. Ultimately in this democracy if we can't dictate the terms of accountability for police who kill members of our community, then we are on our way to a police state.

What about the argument that strong policing is necessary to rein in crime in the inner city?

It's in the fight against some perceived evil where we most often end up giving up some of our rights. Say it is a sexual predator we are afraid of, and we [order] indefinite detention despite no finding that [he or she] has committed a violation of the law. Or it's the war on drugs, where our inner cities are being decimated by evil drug dealers, and [we agree to violate] some people's rights [with illegal stop-and-frisk laws] in order to save others. It's that whole notion of "Let's burn the village in order to save it."

Would you be saying that if the sexual predator lived next door?

The purpose of the Bill of Rights is to act as a buffer against [the] vigilantism that results when there is a criminal act done against someone in the community we care about. Of course if it were my family member victimized by some sexual predator, I'd want that person identified or detained. But believe me, the moment you take away the rights of that drug dealer or that predator, it's not going to stop with them. Ultimately it will have an impact on you.

Other than through lawsuits, how does the ACLU protect First Amendment rights of free speech?

There is nothing like listening to people and trying to understand where they are coming from. To the extent that we can foster safe places where people can feel comfortable that [their] ideas can be discussed without [risking] violence, that's one role the ACLU can play. The First Amendment is not there to protect polite speech. It is there to protect real raw speech that comes from people's personal experiences.

The Los Van Van concert [in October 1999 Cuba's premier timba dance band, closely identified with the Castro regime, played an unprecedented concert in Miami] was a great example. It took a lot of doing to make sure the event went forward. The ACLU promoted the freedom of someone like [concert organizer] Debbie Ohanian to do her concert at the Miami Arena and also supported the protesters outside to be able to demonstrate. That was a good example, as unpleasant as it appeared to everybody, of the First Amendment in action.

I thought it was a good thing in terms of the growth of the community.

Has Miami grown more tolerant then?

I think we're in a dramatically different place in terms of the consequences that are taken against people who take positions that aren't popular. Given that the worst-case scenario was what was going on 25 years ago, when people were being killed, it could only improve. I don't think there is a real credible threat of physical harm anymore.

But are people potentially going to lose jobs or business because they take certain positions? I think that is still there. We saw that as a result of Elian Gonzalez. People were treated differently by their co-workers as a result of the positions they took. If we are going to live in a democracy, there are going to be consequences for the position you take, which can include personal relationships breaking up.... Nothing will ever change that. We have a Bill of Rights [to prevent] the government from imposing certain viewpoints on people.

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