The Black Lives Matter movement. Low-income renters under threat of eviction. Criminal justice reform. Immigrants’ rights.
Civil liberties are at the center of just about any political discussion these days. So you can imagine how busy the ACLU of Nevada has been.
But for about six months, the Nevada chapter hasn’t had an executive director. That changed recently with the hiring of attorney Athar Haseebullah, who has previously worked for the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada and Legal Aid of Southern Nevada.
He’s also the first person of color to serve at the top of Nevada’s ACLU.
Haseebullah told KNPR's State of Nevada that he was drawn to civil rights having been a practicing Muslim who lived through the 9/11-era.
“I experienced quite a significant amount of xenophobia first hand. That was direct and indirect, overt and covert," he said. "I observed the same happening to a lot of my loved ones. So I knew civil rights and particularly civil rights law was going to be something that I held close to my heart.”
During his time at Howard University Law School, he worked for the ACLU in Maryland and participated in the school's civil rights clinic. Since then, he's been drawn to cases with themes of inequity, unfairness and injustice.
“Thankfully, I’ve now been afforded a position where ... alongside the community, we can work together to really make an impact and uphold civil liberties and civil rights for all,” he said.
Haseebullah believes he'll bring not just his experience as an attorney, but also as a person of color.
“I know what it's like to be subjected to discrimination because it has happened to me - time and time again,” he said.
For instance, Haseebullah helped get a mosque built, and during the zoning-permit process, he noticed the questions being asked of his community were discriminatory and based on a false narrative.
He's also seen first hand how people who struggle with the English language can be discriminated against. He wants to bring that personal experience to the job as executive director.
“From my perspective, being in this position isn’t simply being here to do the ordinary tasks that exist, but really to participate in reform work and movement work and making sure that civil liberties are upheld for everyone,” he said.
Haseebullah said there are "a ton of issues" that the ACLU needs to address in Nevada, including the spread of the coronavirus through the prison system, homelessness, policing and police training, especially around how to treat people with the right to peacefully assemble.
Now that the Nevada Legislature is in session, the ACLU will also be bringing specific requests to lawmakers. Haseebullah would like to see lawmakers eliminate the death penalty in the state, which is something the national organization has been pushing for decades.
He would also like to see the decriminalization of simple traffic tickets and a revision of fines that can keep people in jail just because they don't have enough money.
Haseebullah said the state already has an overpopulated prison system, and it doesn't make sense to prioritize something that costs money, undermines civil liberties and isn't safe because of the pandemic.
While the ACLU would like lawmakers to reform some parts of the justice system, with the huge shortfall in the state's budget, it is expected that money will dominate this year's legislative session.
“Cuts to certain departments may end up having civil rights ramifications. Legislators have been put in a really, really tough spot with a budget that was already bare-bones and [is] now even further down," he said.
He would also like Nevada lawmakers to tackle police reforms. They enacted some reforms during a special session last summer, but advocates believe more needs to be done.
“I think looking at the concept of immunity overall and civil liability as it pertains to use of excessive force, I think, is going to be critical,” Haseebullah said.
Another important reform in his eyes is transparency. He said right now records about police officers who have performed poorly are not open to the public. That is something he would like changed, as well as disproportionate enforcement in terms of traffic stops and arrests.
“We need to have more transparency across the board to make sure the systems that are put in place are fair,” he said.
Haseebullah said that the First Amendment of the Constitution protects all Americans, and the ACLU stands to protect the Constitution.
He noted the organization has run into controversy for protecting the free speech rights of people whose views don't align with how the ACLU has been historically perceived. In the past, it has defended the rights of neo-Nazis to speak and assemble.
“But, when one group’s civil rights are under attack one day, that does not mean that yours won’t be under attack on the second day,” he said.
Editor’s note: This discussion originally aired on February 2, 2021.
Athar Haseebullah, executive director, ACLU of Nevada
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