The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts celebrated its upcoming 100-year anniversary in 2020 with a pop-up interactive experience Saturday in Copley Square, complete with craft tables and walk-in exhibits centered around mass incarceration, immigration and voting rights.
At the event, two trailer compartments took visitors on miniature informational tours, with displays describing the challenges faced by those incarcerated in the American criminal justice system and detailing the history and future of voting rights.
Participants also had the opportunity to make T-shirts and buttons to take home, while volunteers also sold ACLU shirts and distributed information on the organization’s current efforts to improve civil rights within the state.
As the ACLU has expanded to all 50 states, Washington, D.C and Puerto Rico since its founding, John Ward, director of communications for the ACLU of Massachusetts, said Saturday’s celebration thereby served a dual purpose.
“We’re the first affiliate that was founded in the country, so this is meaningful to us for two reasons,” Ward said. “We’re celebrating the coinciding hundred-year centennial anniversary of the [national] ACLU family.”
Inside the voting rights-themed trailer, vividly colored walls displayed photos, graphics and text. Visitors read about gerrymandering, literacy tests and poll taxes, as well as photo identification laws and registration deadlines, among other efforts by state legislatures to interfere with voter equity throughout history.
Before attendees entered the criminal reform trailer, they could pick up one or both of the phones outside to listen to an individual narrate their personal incarceration stories. Miniscule orange dots speckled both walls of the indoor compartment, each representing one of almost two million people incarcerated in the U.S.
One section of the wall was covered in blue dots to depict the portion of those who would be out of jail if the country executed reforms.
Whitney Taylor, policy director for the ACLU of Massachusetts, said that her organization is currently promoting its Future of Freedom agenda, which advocates to pass state legislation promoting reproductive freedom, protecting the safety of immigrant communities and blocking the use of facial recognition technology in law enforcement.
“Our face surveillance campaign is called ‘Press Pause.’ It is the first in the country, we’re piloting it here in Massachusetts,” Taylor said. “People don’t know that these technologies are being used. People do not know how invasive they are, and how pervasive they can be. Just because we have a new, fun technology like facial recognition doesn’t mean the Constitution goes out the door.”
Taylor said that the ACLU of Massachusetts is also pushing a bill allowing Election Day registration, which would permit Massachusetts residents to bypass the current 20-day waiting period before being able to cast their ballots.
“I think it’s a very important thing for students: a lot of the time our primaries are in September. If you all come back to school, you wouldn’t be able to vote in the primary,” Taylor said. “The most important thing in what our Constitution talks about is equal and easy access to the ballot. So if I have moved, and I decided that I want to vote someplace, being able to register on Election Day is an important thing.”
Collyn Stephens, 31, of Roxbury, attended the event to film a documentary for her class at Northeastern University.
“It seems like [with] what’s going on in the country, in the world, ACLU has been at the forefront of justice, whether it’s people who are currently in prison, or people that are fighting for the First Amendment right to freedom of speech,” Stephens said. “So I think it’s just really important to come out here and see what kind of work they’ve done in the past and where their organization is going for the future.”
At the T-shirt-making section, Joceneia Timas, 35, of Roxbury spray-painted “LOVE ALWAYS WINS!!!” onto the white fabric, above an outline of a red heart.
“I think that no matter what happens, love always wins even when we’re having trouble all the time,” Timas said. “I think in the end, we always come together if we find ourselves and also realize that we’re all together in these, you know, whatever it is we want to call it, troubled or bad times.”
Susan Meurling, 72, of North End attended the celebration after having been a member of the ACLU for five years.
“[The ACLU] embodies just about everything I believe in for this country,” Meurling said. “And it’s not my only donation, but I give to groups like ACLU and a few others.”
A poster of the U.S. map also greeted passersby at the event, inviting them to write on it their dream for an ideal America. Meurling penned hers in black Sharpie: “A land where everyone is legal, loved and loves whom they want. What could that be but good?”
Correction: A previous version of the article mistakenly attributed two quotes to Natacia Knapper, who works for the ACLU of Washington D.C., and not Whitney Taylor, who works at the ACLU of Massachusetts. The article has been updated to reflect these changes.