On the desk of my home computer, sits a stack of invitations to community engagements, and I’m never more excited for a lead to social justice than working with Emilio De Torre. I first met Emilio during one of his well-known workshops on interacting with law enforcement, in which his Spanish accent and Americanized attire prompted many questions about his ancestry, and why a Hispanic-American kid born in Queens, New York chose to come to a segregated Milwaukee to work with underprivileged black youth. The response to such inquiry from many others might be felt as a privacy violation, but Emilio’s willing dialogue demonstrated his authenticity in fighting for social justice. Not only does Emilio’s willingness to travel across the country showcase his sacrifice for others, but to have the struggles of others as his traveling grace is a testament to his dedication. In spite of the options that his career choice as a Director at the ACLU of Wisconsin provides, Emilio has never allowed where he is going to make him forget where he came from. Although the fight for civil rights has been a century-long journey from Spain to America, Mr. De Torre provided me with an hour into the dangers of his New York neighborhood that inspired him to be an agent for change around the world.
How did you become so involved with programs for social justice?
Well, taking an active role on what goes on in my community was encouraged at an early age by my parents, my dad’s mom especially, my abuela. I was active in a lot of things growing up, demonstrations, and protest movements. And then professionally, after I became a public schoolteacher, I started working closely with the lives of my students and their families. After that, working with the boys & girls clubs in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan, and seeing how painfully unequal systems of access were, and how folks were systematically denied opportunities. I was way too excited to come work for the ACLU in Wisconsin, to have a career or job that directly provided me the chance to make sure that the civil rights and civil liberties of everybody was being advocated for and protected.
What issues are most important to you, or which ones do you emphasize the most?
It’s hard to say. I can’t point to any individual one and say, oh, this is it! It’s always been a part of my family and history, and I was always surrounded by good folks. Like, everyone had issues that they advocated for and were important to them. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell which issues are of greatest importance, but for me personally, freedom of speech, racial equity—or racial justice, rather, are the areas that resonate most with me. Also, educational access, and that includes anti-bullying. That’s a good question, it’s like saying what’s your favorite food, you know? I can’t answer you on that. I love to eat, eating is important, but equality and justice is an important fabric of everything we do all the time. And I firmly believe that the equality of my brothers and sisters is extremely tied up into my life. There’s this old quote, “An injustice to one is an injustice to all,” and as an individual, I firmly believe that. The areas that echo most through me are the areas of equality, and not to diffuse it down to combat any form of bias. I realize that I’m loud, I realize that I’ve been given a strong voice, and I’m happy to add that strong voice to the chorus of folks understanding what equality and justice is. I recognized years ago that people speak of “callings,” I recognize this as calling, I’m not going to do anything else.
Do the ways in which you approach solving these issues change from being a participant to a Director?
Ah, that’s fascinating. I don’t think that my position changes the way that I approach these issues. I have always wanted to work collaboratively. I find that people in general are experts on their own lives, so when I’m working with folks in Red Cliff or Bayfield, or Madison and Milwaukee, or Racine—the people in these communities know what’s best for them, and they know what’s going on in their world, and they know how they are perhaps, being mistreated, misrepresented, so I just try to work with folks to see what’s best in the course of action. It’s interesting, for example, when I went to Bayfield last week to work on social media, technology, and privacy rights, a lot of the problems are the same there, and it’s a 90% Native American community. The issues that the parents and students are facing are similar. There’s differences, of course, because of the demographic, but their issues, fears, and hopes are the same as black kids, or Latino kids, o white kids here in Milwaukee. The way that folks are voiceless, or are made to feel they are being misrepresented and mistreated, it’s the same, the same care and compassion that a parent has for their child who’s being bullied in Fon du Lac because they’re biracial or who’s being bulled in Madison, for whatever reason. A woman was just telling me that her daughter is being bulled because she just recently came out as a Lesbian, and another how their son is being bullied because he doesn’t express himself verbally very well. So, how do I stop the injustice and crime committing? You’ve got this great group of kids who are black in Milwaukee working on racial equity. You’ve got so many tremendous people here in Milwaukee who are working on issues of police accountability. Look at Dontre Hamilton’s family, Nate Hamilton. There’s no set position on these issues, or very public position about the participation in movements. I’m not saying that they’re leaders per se, but there are persons that didn’t want their brother or son to die. But it happens and now, they’re in this position. Folks just want justice, they don’t want second-class citizenship, they don’t want self par police force, they don’t want to walk down the street and say, ‘hey, that police car is slowing down…are they going to pull me over because I’m a black man?’ Are they going to stop me and search me when I’m going to church with my family? Are they going to keep me outside of Lena’s and leave me outside in the freezing cold and rain because of the color of my skin? So, folks are all demanding similar things. They want happiness. They want dignity. They want integrity. They want to be treated with the same respect, and held accountable by the same set of rules and standards of everybody else. A part of my job is to work with all of these amazing people, and to help them figure out how they can advocate themselves, and help them commit change, and help them to find out who is working on the same things, and who might be standing shoulder to shoulder with them. I get to work with so many brilliant activists and educators, lobbyists, political leaders, religious leaders, your moms, dads, kids, and that’s what’s fantastic. Even though I grew up in a diverse community in Queens and Brooklyn, people here are just walking around like they’re in Star Trek, and there’s just so many brilliant, different people. By moving into a role of Director, it’s just me looking back over the course of people struggling. I always look for people who are willing to learn, and I have an eagerness to hear peoples stories, and a desire to stand not above them, but beside them.
What are the challenges with being a leader as a Hispanic-American?
I think that sadly, people want to stereotype folks, and put folks in a pigeon hole. I think that working with so many diverse folks, it’s important to make sure that you constantly have an opportunity for people to share their unique stories of dignity, and to advocate for themselves. Whether that inclusion is talking about gender expression, or sexual identity, or variance of age, or variance of religion, or race or ethnicity—whatever the variation is—we have to constantly remember to not only be true to our own stories, but to provide space to make sure that it all gets molded into a nice tapestry. I think it’s super important for folks to advocate as allies for individuals, and to remember their place in the struggle. So, when people talk to you about the “Black Lives Matter” initiative, this is why it is important. You’ll see folks getting on Facebook and saying, “Well, all lives matter” or “why do they have to call it that?” Well, because there’s this horrible statistic showing extremely painful racial profiling, or 7:1 and 5:1 ratios of incarceration of black men over white men in Milwaukee and Madison for smoking marijuana. So, it’s important for folks to recognize their allies, who aren‘t a part of the demographic. It’s vitally important for all of us, who are white or latino, or black or asian, to make sure that we are telling our stories together, and people that come over to be cognitive of the differences that we all have. There’s this lie of being “color blind,” where people are saying, “well, I don’t notice these differences exist.” Well, these differences exist, and these differences are damaging in our community. We have to recognize that whether you choose to address these injustices, they are still real, and folks need to stand up shoulder to shoulder to begin the process of changing injustice, changing imbalance, changing equality in our communities. And anybody who is going to be perceived as a leader needs to use whatever social liberty they have to begin putting a break on this racism thing for justice and equality.
Is it more of a challenge or a benefit to work with youth?
It’s a blessing! It’s neither a challenge, nor a benefit. We’re very fortunate in that the ACLU of Wisconsin has an extreme diverse board of directors, and in that such, we have youth members on our board of directors who want to have the same voting rights and responsibilities as anybody else. As an individual, ever since I was in the boys & girls clubs, and even before then as a teacher, I’ve always wanted to make sure that youth feel represented and respected. I take every opportunity for young people to have their place at the table. That’s a good question, because young people are frequently spoken for, and young people are frequently discredited by people who say, “Ah, they don’t know what they’re talking about, they’re young.” Everybody knows their own set of circumstances in their lives, and young people are the greatest authority over their own lives. They know what they’re going through, they know what’s affecting them in their community, and they have every right to advocate for what would be ideal or better for them. Actually, if you’re young and black, young and latino, if you’re young and trans or lesbian or gay, or young and muslim, or young and any other voice of being persecuted, there’s multiple sides because now the status quo is being treated unfairly solely because of your age. That’s just not right. I have so many great, young people in high school and middle school who have opportunity to work with folks, who worked with me on Dr. Martin Luther King day at the healing center, and work on workshops with me, who have roles on coordinating panel discussions, who go to fire cleaning commissions, who go to school board meetings and hearings, and they represent themselves admirably, and in the meantime, better than adults who are there attempting to do the same thing. So, I have no illusions that young people are the leaders now.
What strategies do you use to integrate younger and older members, particularly on the same topics?
Some of it is just [pauses] I treat people with the same respect and open mind and desire to hear their story that I would hope they would extend to me. Certainly, I use humor. I have a strong background in computers, and I like to use the computer for games to keep it educative. When it comes to building bridges between people of multiple generations, a apart of that is trying to find a common ground, so that people can find that people speak different languages, so it’s good that this newer generation is stuck on tablets and cellphones and laptops in our hands. For the older generation, even a first-generation at a college, they weren’t connected to the internet; they were connected to social media, but not at the same level and intensity. So, younger folks, like my own kids, don’t need to be taught how to use a computer, and they pick up on stuff quickly. With older folks, this is new, and sometimes they use embarrassing things like, ‘how do I use The Google,‘ and we giggle at that. But sometimes that kinda takes a friendly approach to the differences that we all have, so we can hopefully find a cure. Younger people want to have a bigger voice to impact the community around them. They want to have access to the things that make them feel happy and fulfilled, and older folks want the same thing. Lots of times, we buy into stereotypes of one another, and it’s not only done through race and religion and personality and ethnicity and nationality and ability, but it also happens through the intersection of ages. By creating greater opportunities for folks to work side by side, which is something I am able to do in a lesser degree during the school year but a greater degree during the summertime because we begin working on projects like Latino Carnaval, or any of the public forums that we work on. This year, we’re working much more assertively to take a look at juxtaposing images of race, and access to opportunity in an intergenerational way, so we have older and younger folks working together to take a look at what’s fantastic and what’s exciting in Milwaukee, then what is blinding our city. I’m hoping to do this in thought-provoking ways, so that people are communicating a little more, and get them expressing themselves through art. I’m a big believer in art and music, and it is a common language for people to begin exploring issues of anything really, but especially in stimulating conversations of race, access, and power. So, opportunities for people to work together, sharing their expressions through art is golden, and we try to help people at the most basic level with that. I also think folks bagging bread, or eating a meal together—even if it’s a bag of spicy cheetos—is a step in the right direction because once you sit down and eat with folks, and people are creating together, talking together, we can begin reaping things again and becoming a healthier community.
Are the youth more receptive of workshops or protests?
I think [pauses] sometimes, you have to kick [expletive] and demand change. Protests are a vital part of our history as a nation, whether we were dumping pee in the ocean or advocating for people to vote . I try to get the point across that not so long ago, our government and police forces were sticking dogs on men, women, and kids. They were hitting them with fire hoses, which is powerful enough to knock you down. They were sending german shepherd attack dogs to fight, savage other American citizens because of the color of their skin. They didn’t care if they were younger or older. It has to be more than just a black and white photo. We have this anecdote textbook, and people can’t get an inch in the battle for equality and civil rights in our country because we’ll just sink back into this time that isn’t so long ago. So, we have to keep each other eternally vigilant because there are many people who are happy to diminish folks’ ability to vote or diminish right to free speech. Workshops—sharing education, educating people, teaching folks how to advocate for themselves, and giving them tools to know what their rights are for self-representation, teaching folks to know what their rights are with law enforcement during a police encounter, teaching folks what their rights are to vote, what their rights are to use their cell phone, or their right to be free from institutionalized bullying—these are all important, but knowing too, that you have to demonstrate, or protest, or complain, or go to school board meetings, or to demand a redress of grievances. This is in the Bill of Rights, and one of the things that makes the United States great is that you can take to the streets for demonstrative protest. I don’t think any one is better or worse, I think they are equally important because [pauses] listen, if there are people trying to prevent you from getting a place at the table, and get what’s rightfully yours, then you’ve got to stand up and fight. That’s just how it is. How you fight, whether it’s with an attorney or taking to the streets or taking to the television sets with the media, or putting up posters, or going to the state capitol, or going to the legislative offices and demanding a change. Folks need to know that these elected officials are held accountable, and they can go to their offices, or call them, or go to their meetings and make sure that they are represented, and if they’re not, they need to know why. So, you need the education part to know what it is, perhaps, that you’re asking for, or to whom you should be asking these things. And well, the demonstration part is a part of that equation. Sometimes, it’s just holding community meetings. I love to see young people holding their own meetings and community forums. I love the creation of community art forums, where people are sharing information and messages through theater, spoken word, music and poetry. I love to see the different, myriad ways that people are sharing information through social media. You know, who’s to say what is the best way to communicate these messages? I don’t think that there’s one silver book solution, and certainly the older generations haven’t found “the answer” yet, but wants the younger generation to not repeat the same mistakes as yesterday. And to know everybody who has fought to get where we are today is really to create a new path into tomorrow.
What do you think is most important for protestors to know, as far as, a setlist before they go out and demonstrate?
Well, for example, there are a lot protests and demonstrations that are going to be going on in Milwaukee in the wake of Ferguson, in the wake of the very unfortunate murder of Dontre Hamilton here by the police force, and now with the assault through public education, and in the attempt to turn Wisconsin into a right-to-work state, people are freaking out all over. Not only in the state capitol of Madison, and Milwaukee, but more and more demonstrations have been happening on UW campuses around the state. So, as sad and unfortunate as these things are, it’s great to see people taking an active role in demanding change and holding people accountable. Demonstrators have to remember that—which on our website you can see ‘the rights of demonstrators and protesters’—we’re training observers to monitor police forces and protesters and the behaviors of law enforcement in relation to protesters to ensure that police are obeying the law and protecting the constitutional right of protesters, regardless of the age of the protesters. It’s important to be mindful of what local laws and ordinances are, so that we aren’t breaking the law and committing civil disobedience. Even though the word “civil” is there, it’s still breaking the law, so we have to be aware of the penalty of whatever law that is that folks are breaking. You may need permits to march in some streets, or other areas, so folks should be mindful of what the laws are in those areas, and to not necessarily disobey direct demands of law enforcement, but they should monitor who’s making these different demands and make sure they are lawful demands. Also, be mindful of the weather. If you’re protesting tomorrow, it’s going to be cold, so you should dress in layers, wear comfortable foot wear, make sure you’re hydrated and drinking water. That’s a good question because if you’re a legal observer, we train you on how to monitor the interactions between law enforcements and demonstrators. But if you’re a demonstrator, just know what your rights are. You can carry different things, those are your protective rights, so they can’t tell you not to. For example, if law enforcement tries to demand your phone, or taking actions that are unlawful and illegal, you don’t have to give them your phone. You should just put a lock on your phone, so folks can’t access your images. If you want to protect identity theft, the photos and videos you’re taking, you should lock your phone, that’s also important. Or tell them to get a warrant from the judge and they can collect it that way because you don’t have to give up your phone. You also don’t have to consent to search of your personal property. You don’t have to consent to interviews with law enforcement. Get an attorney, then talk to them.
What is your immediate reaction to when events, such as those that happen in Ferguson and New York happen?
If you’re asking me as an employee of the ACLU, then this is a part of longterm investigation that we’re having. You know, where is racial profiling going on? What does it look like? How do we stop it? If you’re asking on a personal level, these are horrific tragedies. These are the snuffing out of lives before their time. My heart breaks, as a compassionate person, as an American who wants to see a fair and just society, as a parent, and it makes me angry that this is still going on in 2015 while people pretend it is not going on, or they try to talk around the problem. There’s a highly publicized video of a young man in South Carolina who got pulled over by police for allegedly not wearing his seatbelt, and the police officer asked to see his wallet, for him to step out of the car, and the officer shoots him! Repeatedly! In the daylight, in a crowded gas station! And that this is going on, is horrible. People try to integrate the stories to say, “oh well, he was wearing a hoodie” or “the guy was a jerk” or “he’d robbed somebody before” or “he had a record”. Those are just many examples going on, and regardless of these circumstances, the penalty is not execution in the streets, and this is a part of our systematic problem in America of institutionalized racial profiling that needs to end. My bigger question is, how are the people that watch this [pauses] what are they doing to end stereotyping and racial profiling and how are they working to hold their police department and their community members accountable.
Did the Dontre Hamilton case make you look at Milwaukee differently from Ferguson or New York, since it did not receive as much of a headline as Michael Brown or Eric Garner? Or do you even compare cities when there’s a case like that?
Sadly, there was video footage of Eric Garner, and I think that sometimes the presence of video footage may amplify the telling of the tale. I can’t speculate on our statistics of disproportionately stopping African-American males as greater than the stopping and frisking of young, black males in New York City, and people need to see that is horrible. The number of folks in pretextual stops, where people are going about their business, and they’re being targeted because of the color of their skin or live in that area. And to think that’s just the way it’s going to be for any of the thousands of residents in these zip codes here in Milwaukee, has a very powerful effect on their minds, on their happiness, on their ability to go about their lives. Everybody has the right to the same type of quality as police, so why is it that so many folks are not getting that?
What are some future plans or goals that you would like to see happen regarding social justice, specifically in Milwaukee?
Tricky question. I would love to see fair, accountable, and transparent police. I’d like to see more justice in how law enforcement interacts with citizens of Milwaukee. I’d like to see more justice in ticketing and sentencing as well. Now, this isn’t just Milwaukee because Madison has their number of disproportionate stops of young, black males, and certainly, the attention is on Milwaukee because of the recent death of Dontre, and the custody of young Darius.
Are any of those plans a part of something you’re working on this month for Black History?
I don’t want to sound cliché. By the nature of my job, I constantly work to be an advocate and an ally for my black, brothers and sisters. I have dedicated my life to social justice, civil rights, and civil liberties, to elevate it to daily conversation and daily action. So, specifically for Black History, I don’t necessarily plan anything new, but we are constantly involved at the ACLU with the forum, whether it’s community brainstorming, panel discussions, meetings at UW system, or any other colleges or local communities, we just keep that going. My personal goals are kinda moving into my professional goals. There’s very little difference between who I am off the clock and when I’m in the ACLU.
As an ally then, what is the significance of Black History Month for you?
I’m still trying to get to the level where I can be me 24/7, and in some work environments, you can’t. If you’re in a corporate environment, or working in a customer service oriented environment, or a more service-oriented environment, you have to work within certain parameters. The only parameter that I have to follow other than the obvious professional qualms that comes with any office space or representing the organization publicly, is that we’re a non-partisan site and we have specific policies. As folks who want a fair and just society, we have to recognize that not only is the African Diaspora a huge blow against black folks globally, but the voice of accomplishments and contributions of sciences, medicines, civil rights, civil liberties, and years of history of black progress in the United States is systematically quiet, through laws, through incarcerations, through the school-to-prison pipeline. We need to take every opportunity not only to provide access, but to make space for the black voice to be shared for injustices to be righted, for a space to begin politically, socially, economically, and for a leveling of the playing field, so that these notions of equality and fairness become more than just notions of equality and fairness, so that we can begin to practice and preach equality and fairness. We also need to learn the false images that our community and the media teaches us, the stereotypes that black men are inherently dangerous or uneducated or are only good at sports, or the stereotypes about black women that are sold over and over again, about what they can accomplish, or who they can be, what professions are available, or what a black man or a black woman can obtain. Not only do we have to advocate otherwise, we have to learn. As we become a much more racially diverse society, and have more biracial or multiracial children, the story and the dialogue becomes more complex. And we have to be ever mindful of making space at the table to hear the different dialogues, to recognize difference, to celebrate difference, to unlearn the images to begin the process of healing. To end the hatred, the slavery, and police brutality, and injustices perpetuated on folks that aren’t a part of this white power majority. It’s not only African-Americans, but certainly, we celebrate them during Black History Month for all of the oppressed people all over the earth.
To learn more about Emilio De Torre, and how you can get involved with the ACLU of Wisconsin, visit http://www.aclu-wi.org.