Mississippi is like another world. Here is a state that has a history of police brutality, deeply held religious convictions, extreme racial disparity and poverty. Not much has changed. Despite the civil rights movement, the State is still far behind the rest of nation in its citizens basic rights. Most people when you say this, will nod and say, "Well it's the South and it's Mississippi, what can you do?" However, until you come to this State and see for yourself just how much disparity there is in Mississippi, will you fully grasp the people's passion for social justice and deep need for radical change and community organizing efforts. Since being here, I have felt an energy, an indescribable yet palpable will for change.
The ACLU of Mississippi is a leading force in social change and equality. Working out of Jackson, I was assigned to be an intern for two and a half weeks primarily to work on reproductive rights issues. Mississippi has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation, which have also limited access to birth control and sexual health education, as well as severely limiting abortion clinic operations. The Reproductive Freedom Project of the ACLU wants to change all this; however, the organization, despite their gallant efforts, passion and dedication face the barriers of being woefully underfunded and understaffed. Here is a state that has the most restrictive abortion laws, the most stringent judicial bypass procedures for minors who do not have parental consent and virtually no sexual health education and yet there is no Planned Parenthood, NOW, Feminist Majority or Center for Reproductive Health. Perhaps those organizations feel that Mississippi is a lost cause or that the restrictions would make it virtually impossible for their organization to exist or perhaps they are afraid of making things worse, but their absence in a state that clearly needs their help means that the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project (which is only one person) is being pulled into too many different directions at once.
As the only intern who came to this office, I have been instantly thrown into work. Within the first half hour of being in the office, a staff attorney discussed the current political climate in Mississippi and the possible litigation the ACLU may bring forward dealing with voting rights and alternative schools. When it came to reproductive rights, it was explained that this was not the area of his expertise-- any chance I could come up with some ideas of how to litigate on reproductive rights?
Aside from the amazing opportunity to apply what I learned from constitutional law to what I know about the restrictions placed on reproductive health, most of the work I see the MS ACLU doing is community organizing and legislative work. Currently, I am helping the Reproductive Rights Project Coordinator with legislative work for sexual health education and the formation of peer sexual health clubs.
Peer sexual health education (Teen Chat) is a perfect example of the community organizing work the ACLU is doing around reproductive rights. Some students play basketball, others are involved with the honor society and a precious few pass out condoms and hold clandestine workshops after school. Teen Chat was designed only a few years ago but I believe it was only implemented last year (with the help of former MS Project delegates) and is getting revamped again this year. The system is easy: hold a community meeting asking concerned parents and children ages 10-17 to see if any are interested in being peer leaders. Those who are interested then go through a month-long training program so that they learn about their anatomy, changing bodies, contraceptive devices, STD and HIV prevention and forming healthy relationships. Once graduated from the program, the peer leaders are then given instruction on basic community organizing and then go into their schools and do what is needed to distribute the information about sexual health that is evidently lacking in the schools. To make sure this program is effective, my task is to redo some of the training curriculum so that as much information can be packed into the training month without burdening the students too much so that they drop out of the program.
At the same time, the Reproductive Freedom Coordinator is meeting with principals to see if any are willing to actually allow a sexual health club at their school. The principals are worried about Board of Education approval and feel as if their hands are tied. Is there anything the Equal Access Act can help in this regard? We don't know yet-- we'll learn as soon as I'm done doing research. In addition, to help sway the principals to allow such clubs, I am doing research to find the correlation between teen pregnancy and drop out rates and the inclusion of comprehensive sexual health education and better performance in schools.
On the legislative front, the ACLU drafted legislation that will provide for comprehensive sexual health education. Once the session starts, I will need to follow session activity to help ensure the success of the bill and monitor anti-choice and anti-civil liberty bills.
Due to the underfunding of the MS ACLU, the understaffed office and the wide array of issues the ACLU takes interest in, other staff members have asked for my assistance in their work. An issue the ACLU took notice of was the amount of arrests being made in the Delta (the portion of MS that lays along the river; the population is mainly comprised of impoverished African-Americans). The arrests were made during a drug sting operation, but the ACLU suspected the drug raids to be a tool of racial profiling and had heard through the grapevine that the arrests were unlawful.
To better understand the situation and see if there was anything the ACLU could do to help the citizens of Moss Point, a town in the Delta that had recently been targeted with a drug sting operation, a town hall meeting was held at a church. Over 70 people attended the meeting, all of whom had stories of police officers and DEA agents coming into their houses without warrants, arresting people walking down the street for not having an ID and defense attorneys who had told innocent arrested citizens to plead guilty because it would be easier.
The people who attended the meetings varied in their education of civil liberties. A fair number knew that the police could not come into their house without a warrant, but few felt empowered enough to deny them entrance into their house, as the cops had been using intimidation techniques to gain entry without warrants. Most citizens did not realize that warrants had to be specific to a place and person and felt powerless when police officers and DEA agents had a warrant for the house but began searching their cars or arrested a person not listed on the warrant.
To better help the citizens of Moss Point, the members from the ACLU gave basic information on rights when dealing with the police and took down information from people to better see if there is a case that can be brought against the government.
I have only been here for five days and yet I already feel compelled to come back and do more for the ACLU and the people whose daily activities are encompassed by extreme injustice. I am sure I will learn of more efforts to restrict the freedoms of the people here once the legislative session starts and I am looking forward to the challenges that lay ahead of me.