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On Wednesday May 16th, Miriam Aukerman of the American Civil Liberties Union spoke to a full audience for the Progressive Women’s Alliance. This meeting was open to the public and addressed the protection of civil liberties in a time of economic crisis.
Ms. Aukerman began her presentation by discussing the right of free speech and how it impacts those in poverty. Freedom of speech for those in difficult economic situations varies drastically from those that have economic stability. If a person in poverty utilizes a sign that states “I’m hungry” he or she may be placed into our corrective facilities for breaking various laws. However, organizers and businesses involved in other issues have public displays of messaging such as “save the earth” or “shop here” and will be fined but can afford to pay these fines. Aukerman stated that "many people that live in poverty simply do not have the ability to ask for help" yet others can afford to break laws. According to Aukerman it is important freedom of speech is preserved for people of all economic situations as it is a constitutional right. One should not be discriminated against based on his or her ability. There are several examples of human rights violations targeted towards those in poverty in Michigan. In fact, the ACLU stated the “Anti-Begging Law” of Grand Rapids this past February was “harsh.”
Auckerman explained that one in six people in Michigan live in poverty. Poverty is defined as not having enough money or food to feed your family. A disproportionate number of people that are in poverty end up involved in our corrections system, and many do not have financial access to legal services or a lawyer. Aukerman explained, “you can’t balance the budget by incarcerating poor people.” Going to jail lowers future opportunities for people that are convicted and makes it difficult to integrate into the economy. Those in poverty are unable to expect fair representation in the court system. The ACLU has a report on the impact incarceration rates have on the economy. Many of these themes may be solved with campaigns like Decriminalize Grand Rapids which focus on inconsistent incarceration rates for non-violent drug offenders and minority populations.
Aukerman further explained, “difficult economic times are not an excuse to violate the constitution.” She later stated that there is a constitution for the rich and a constitution for the poor and citizens are held to different standards and expectations. The ACLU has social justice programs to help minorities and people in poverty in the state of Michigan. Many programs aide those in compromised situations, however Aukerman suggested that “this is a systemic change” and will take time and effort to solve.
A unique dialogue Aukerman brought up was the ability for those from poverty to participate in civic engagement. The high mobility and lack of permanent residency for those that do not have stable incomes is cause for concern. Constant moving, renting, foreclosed homes and bankruptcy may prove to make it difficult for all citizens to have equal access to the voting process. In fact, Michigan has unlawfully purged voters from the voter rolls. 5,500 Michigan residents were unable to vote in the 2008 presidential election. The state violated the National Voter Registration Act when it removed voters from the roll under the following two circumstances: first, when voter ID cards were returned as 'undeliverable', and second when Michigan voters obtained driver's licenses in other states. If people are unable to vote, they are silenced.