I knew something was going on when I walked into the community room at the Palm Desert Library for a meeting sponsored by the Desert Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California—and there were more than 140 people, hauling in chairs and standing along the side and back walls.
I’ve attended ACLU gatherings locally from time to time, and there are usually about 15 to 20 attendees. A week after the election results, something different was happening.
The speaker was James Gilliam, deputy executive director of the ACLU of Southern California. He talked about how the Los Angeles-based organization was going to need to hire more people just to process the thousands of inquiries and volunteer applications it had received over the past few weeks.
The ACLU was founded in 1920, and the cases the group has had its hand in are the stuff of American history: the Scopes trial challenging prohibitions on teaching evolution; the ban on James Joyce’s Ulysses, considered by some to be a profane and pornographic book; and perhaps its most controversial case, defending the right of American Nazis to publicly march in Skokie, Ill.—in a neighborhood containing many Holocaust survivors. The ACLU has consistently demonstrated a commitment to constitutional principles regardless of whose feathers might be ruffled.
The Los Angeles chapter was founded in 1923 by author Upton Sinclair at a time when striking longshoremen were banned from holding public meetings by the Los Angeles Police Department. Sinclair and friends marched in opposition to the force used by police, and were arrested and charged with threatening to overthrow the government.
Other issues championed by ACLU have included fighting government abuse of power and invasion of privacy, promoting economic justice to ensure that no one is disenfranchised, women’s equality, LGBT rights and prisoners’ rights.
The president of the Desert Chapter of ACLU is Elaine Wang Meyerhoffer, a Palm Springs resident for more than a decade. Of Chinese heritage, Elaine was born in West Virginia but educated at the American School in Taiwan. Her parents had fled China, and her father attained American citizenship after enlisting in the U.S. Army.
Elaine’s mother was also educated in the United States. “My mother’s family was full of girls, with a very traditional father who would ordinarily not have educated his daughters,” says Elaine. “But I had an aunt who wanted to be an architect, and my grandfather was a very fair man: If he was going to educate one daughter, he would educate them all.”
Elaine’s education includes a bachelor’s degree in English literature and political science from Stanford, and a graduate degree in sociology from Stanford. She is currently enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program in music at the University of Redlands.
“I’m a classical singer, although I don’t think it’s a great voice,” laughs Elaine. “I started singing when I was about 10, and I love it!” She currently sings regularly at Bloom in the Desert Church.
She came from a family with first-person stories about repression and a lack of rights in China. “I’m always interested when people complain about this country (United States),” she says. “They have no idea how lucky they are to have the freedom to say what they want. The government can’t take people off the street or come into their homes without due process.”
Elaine, a registered Republican, says she became president of the local ACLU almost by default. “I didn’t really know that much about the ACLU, but I volunteered to join the board because I wanted to understand what was happening in the local community regarding civil rights. Brad Oliver had been president, and when he stepped down, they asked if I was willing to do it. I had never done activism before, but what I care about in life is fairness. I chose the ACLU because it is nonpartisan and focused on human rights and justice.
“I think we’re in our divided situation as a country because there’s been so little reaching across partisan lines. I see my role as pulling people toward the center, because that’s where civilization will have the ability to continue.”
The ACLU has at various times been lauded, vilified, feared, dismissed and exalted. It is a legal organization whose purpose is to defend and secure the rights guaranteed by the Constitution, particularly those related to the First Amendment—the protection of free speech, free association and assembly, and freedom of the press. It also fights for the separation of church and state, equal protection against discrimination, the right to due process, the right to be treated equally under the law, and the right to privacy—specifically intrusion by the government.
“Bad behavior should not be allowed to be gotten away with,” says Elaine, “whether it’s personal or on a societal level. The threat of ‘tit for tat’ is a valuable tool to inject into our cultural DNA so that people and the government think about the consequences before they say or do things that are violating the rights of others.”
The local group’s goals include continuing regular meetings to educate the community about immigration rights and voting rights, as well as women’s and LGBT issues. It works closely with the rest of the Southern California organization to bring people together. The chapter also sponsors a scholarship program for local high school students based on essays about civil liberties and civil rights.
In the words of Hector Villagra, the executive director of the ACLU of Southern California: “If the ACLU had not existed before the election, we would be starting it today!”
For more information, to volunteer or to donate, visit www.aclusocal.org/local-chapters/desert-cities-chapter.
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her atAnita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.