The past ten years have shown us the best and worst of America. Movements, most led by women of color and youth, created national conversations – Black Lives Matter, Dreamers, #MeToo, March for Our Lives, #NoDAPL, and many, many more. Yet the decade also again laid bare the brutality of white supremacy, xenophobia, bigotry, and state-sanctioned violence, in Connecticut and throughout the country. It’s not easy to take stock of a time when the world burned.
But here are a few clear facts:
In 2009 in Connecticut, the state anti-discrimination law didn’t include transgender and gender non-binary people, the death penalty still existed, people couldn’t register to vote on election day, state law didn’t restrict local police from cooperating with ICE, marijuana was criminalized in all circumstances, and the state incarcerated 18,891 people in 19 prisons and jails.
In 2019, Connecticut’s anti-discrimination law includes protections for people based on gender identity and expression, the death penalty is gone, election day registration exists, state law restricts police cooperation with ICE, marijuana has been decriminalized in small amounts, and the state incarcerates 6,093 fewer people in four fewer prisons (and one less prison annex). The ACLU of Connecticut was part of each of these efforts for change, as were hundreds of people across our state who pushed for progress.
These steps forward come with asterisks. None of the injustices of 2009 have been “solved.” There are problems now that didn’t exist a decade ago. Even the most resounding triumphs for equity, freedom, and justice are usually limited, and each one is under threat. But for all of us at the ACLU of Connecticut, these are reasons to keep fighting – to protect the progress that people make together, and to push for more.
So, we asked the ACLU of Connecticut staff to tell us some of their favorite moments in civil rights and civil liberties from the past decade (2009 – 2019). We couldn’t create a comprehensive list. But we could pull together a reminder that in the never-ending work for change, there are always moments along the way that are worth celebrating and remembering to refill our wells of hope.
In no particular order, here are just some of the moments that meant the most to us from 2009 to 2019:
End of the death penalty in Connecticut
Through a combination of legislative advocacy and lawsuits in the courts, Connecticut repealed the death penalty in 2012, but it didn’t initially include people who were then on death row. In State v. Santiago, Connecticut’s Supreme Court extended the death penalty repeal to include everyone. For our legal director, Dan Barrett, the concurrence from Connecticut Supreme Court Justices Norcott and McDonald in State v. Santiago was a key moment. In ruling the death penalty unconstitutional, Norcott and McDonald wrote:
“Abundant historical and statistical evidence . . . strongly suggests that racial disparities in the capital punishment system exist in Connecticut—as elsewhere—that cannot be accounted for by benign, nonracial factors.”
Public response to the Trump Administration’s Muslim ban in 2017
In January 2017, the Trump Administration announced its first version of a travel ban for immigrants and temporary visitors from majority-Muslim countries. In response, nearly 1,000 people flooded Bradley Airport to protest the injustice and to say that Connecticut – and the United States – should welcome everyone.
“When the country that you love tells you that it does not want you or your family, it is hard to trust that it will not happen again,” Parnian Emami, an ACLU of Connecticut volunteer, told The Hartford Courant a few months later, after the Persian celebration of spring. “But Nowruz, the beginning of spring, is about hope. I am hopeful that we are beginning a new era of courageous people standing up for each other, welcoming strangers and living up to America's best ideals. I have seen the outpouring of support from people in Connecticut for immigrants and refugees.”
National push for cannabis legalization with racial and restorative justice
In 2019, the MORE (Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement) Act in Congress reflected calls from across the country, including Connecticut, for cannabis legalization to include restorative justice measures. Nationwide, the war on marijuana, like the war on drugs overall, has disproportionately harmed Black and Latinx people, leading advocates to call for intentional racial justice policies to be included in marijuana legalization. Although Connecticut decriminalized marijuana in small amounts this decade, the fight for legalized marijuana – including restorative justice policies – continues.
Connecticut abolishing juvenile life sentences without the possibility of parole
In 2015, Connecticut adopted a series of juvenile justice reforms, including banning the cruel practice of sentencing children to life without the possibility of parole, requiring judges to consider youth-related factors for children who were being sentenced in adult court, and creating a “second look” at parole for people serving lengthy prison terms who were sentenced as children. At the time, the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance had found that Connecticut was almost exclusively sentencing Black and Latino children to long, cruel sentences – 97% of people convicted as children who were serving sentences of longer than 50 years were Black or Latinx. And as Smart Justice field organizer Gus Marks-Hamilton pointed out, the legislature’s action was partly prompted by U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in 2010 and 2012.
U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Graham v. Florida, Miller v. Alabama, and Montgomery v. Louisiana
The U.S. Supreme Court’s trio of decisions in Graham v. Florida (2010), Miller v. Alabama (2012), and Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016), together hold that courts cannot sentence children to life in prison without the possibility of parole, at least not without considering how their youth impacted their crimes and whether they are truly ‘incorrigible.’ From staff attorney Elana Bildner: “These decisions bring us one step closer to ending extreme sentencing practices that both make us a world outlier (we are the only country with this practice) and disproportionately impact children of color (Black children are serving life without parole at a per capita rate 10 times that of white children).”
Bree Newsome scaling the South Carolina statehouse to remove the confederate flag and the movement to remove confederate monuments nationwide
In 2015, people across the U.S. watched Bree Newsome’s act of protest and civil disobedience when she climbed the South Carolina statehouse to take down its confederate flag. Since then, others have continued to organize for the removal of confederate monuments across the country. Others have created protest art, like Kehinde Wiley’s recently-unveiled Rumors of War in Richmond.
“I realized that now is the time for true courage the morning after the Charleston Massacre shook me to the core of my being,” Newsome told the Blue Nation Review in 2015. “I couldn't sleep. I sat awake in the dead of night. All the ghosts of the past seemed to be rising.”
Creation of DACA in 2012
After a years-long effort from undocumented youth – including leaders from CT Students for a Dream – President Obama instituted the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program in 2012. After its creation, nearly 700,000 young immigrants were able to participate in the program to protect them from deportation.
Obergefell v. Hodges and the national movement for marriage equality
“I was living in a state without marriage equality at the time of Obergefell v. Hodges, so that was a special moment for me,” said our policy counsel, Kelly Moore.
Just seven years earlier, Connecticut had become the second state in the country to legalize marriage equality through the state Supreme Court’s decision in Kerrigan v Commissioner of Public Health, a lawsuit brought by eight same-sex couples represented by the ACLU of Connecticut and GLAD. Robin and Barb Levine-Ritterman were one of those couples.
“I never would have thought 10 years ago that this day would come, so l am really hopeful it’s going to change nationally, but l'm thrilled especially for our children,” Robin told us in 2009.
Adding gender identity or expression to Connecticut’s anti-discrimination law
In 2011, after advocacy from LGBTQ groups across the state, including CT Equality, Connecticut became the 15th state to include protections for transgender people in its anti-discrimination laws.
“I feel even in the most public of places I still am not safe, just for being who I am,” Ace Ricker wrote in their testimony to support the law’s passage. “What has made me stand so strong here today, has been the people that are in this room and in my community who have been there to help me stand back on my two feet, when I am pushed down by others’ hatred toward me … For everyone whether tall, short, Black, white, non-conforming, conforming, transgender (and everyone else). Everyone deserves to know that any type of discrimination will not be tolerated and that their lives are as important as everyone else’s.”
SCOTUS ruling for privacy rights in Carpenter v. United States
“The Supreme Court’s decision stands as one of the most consequential rulings regarding privacy in the digital age, providing a roadmap for lower courts to protect many other kinds of sensitive data from warrantless government intrusion,” national ACLU attorney Nathan Freed Wessler wrote earlier this year.
In a case argued by the national ACLU, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in its 2018 Carpenter decision that the government must get a warrant before accessing someone’s personal cellphone location data. As Connecticut police departments attempt to expand their surveillance reach into emerging technologies, Carpenter is a harbinger of how the fight for civil rights and liberties must continue to evolve.
Athletes’ protests for racial justice and against police violence
“I applaud them for their courage to take a stand,” our field organizer, Anderson Curtis, told ESPN’s The Undefeated in 2018. “Them” were Colin Kaepernick, Eric Reid, and other athletes who knelt during the national anthem to protest police violence against people of color.
“Definitely [U.S. Women’s National Team member Megan Ra]Pinoe,” said Aubrie Smith, our administrative support manager.
From Kaepernick’s first silent protest, to high school students who joined, to Megan Rapinoe’s solidarity on the pitch, athletes’ protests have continued to show that dissent is patriotic and Black Lives Matter.
The people’s filibuster for abortion rights in Texas
When Wendy Davis filibustered for hours on the Texas Senate floor to stand up for abortion rights, she was not alone – hundreds of people from across Texas had spent days testifying, rallying, and protesting to support reproductive freedom. And for a few brief moments in that statehouse in 2013, the people’s voices prevailed.
So, to everyone who was part of creating these moments: thank you for your bravery, persistence, and advocacy. Thank you for inspiring us, then and now. Thank you for, in some cases, working with us to make these moments happen. And if your moment isn’t on here, help us keep building this list – share your favorite moments with us on Twitter (@acluct), Facebook (@aclu.connecticut), or Instagram (@acluct), and we’ll keep the conversation going into the new year.