Interview with A'Niya Robinson of ACLU Louisiana
Updated: Sep 23, 2021
Ariadne Blayde Interviews A’Niya Robinson, Advocacy Strategist with ACLU Louisiana
Good afternoon! Could you tell me a little about your role with the ACLU?
Essentially what I do is I work on mobilization, turning out our supporters to show up in support of or in opposition to a particular action or piece of legislation. I also represent us on a number of coalitions, I do leadership development for our supporters and community members, and I also help develop public education so people can be more in touch with their government and their legal system.
AB: So as you may know, The Black and Blue Story Project is a new organization devoted to driving systemic change through storytelling. Can you tell me a little bit about how you and your team at the ACLU are using stories to affect change, especially through Justice Lab?
There's two components of Justice Lab. There's litigation, meaning we are in court bringing cases on behalf of people who've been harmed by police. And then we're also doing storytelling. And the reason storytelling is so important to us is because unfortunately the way that the law is set up in Louisiana, you only have a short period of time to bring a complaint against an officer. And a lot of people unfortunately miss that window of opportunity. And officers who do commit misconduct often won't be held accountable for it.
So storytelling is a way for folks who have missed that opportunity, that window of time to bring a complaint, to still have a chance and a platform to tell their story. And we do that in a variety of ways. We have a website where we publish people's stories after we pair them up with a volunteer, and they work together to write, compose, and edit. We also hold events, where people who have survived these incidents can speak out.
Storytelling is really kind of a foundational principle for all of the ways that we do our work. Not just with policing, but also in
the other work that we do to try and transform our criminal legal system. In the reports that we write, you'll often see and be able to read the stories of our community members, people that we've interviewed, who've been through the system can tell you firsthand about what it does to them in their communities. We believe that the people closest to the pain need to be closest to the solution. And that's why storytelling is so important to us in particular, because people with lived experience need to be at the forefront.
What do you think the act of telling that story does for the survivor of that encounter?
I think in a way it helps with the healing process. As someone whose personal family has been affected by police violence, there were times when my family just did not talk about what happened. And it wasn't until a couple of years ago that we finally started to talk about it. To this day it's still a little difficult for me to share, but with each instance it gets a little bit easier. And I think it's also helpful because you're able to form community with other survivors and other families, who've unfortunately been through something similar. I can't tell you how many families and people have reached out to us because they've seen one of our events or they've read one of the stories and that compelled them to contact us.
Does the ACLU work with any professional artists or storytellers?
We are really, really lucky to live in a city where art is just so incredibly important and central to the culture. And so in the past we've really tried to merge activism and art together. Last year we hosted an event where B Mike from Studio B and a couple of the students that he mentors came to one of our events, the Children's March for Racial Justice, to host a workshop for other kids in the community, essentially thinking about what a world without police would look like. And just hearing and seeing all of these amazing visions coming from children was really, really, really powerful.
What else do you think can be gained by bringing young people and bringing students into the conversation?
I think it was Frederick Douglass who said it's easier to teach a child than repair a broken person. That's why the ACLU places such value on youth and making sure that our work is intergenerational. We have what's called an Advocacy Institute for students between ages of 16 and 24. And essentially they go up to DC for a week. For the past two years, it's been virtual, but for a week they learned the nuts and bolts of political advocacy organizing and our legal system and building power and community with each other. So we have a special interest in the students from Louisiana who attend the Institute and we work with them to support their professional development.
We also work with them to cultivate their own programming. Just a couple months ago, a couple of the students had the idea of putting together a panel that talked about police violence and what divestment could look like and what that would mean for communities in Louisiana. And it was a phenomenal, phenomenal panel. They planned it all on their own and they essentially just told me what to do and I just did it.
It’s important to make sure that our youth are not only at the table, but are actually able to exercise their leadership muscles. That's just so important to us, because we won't be around forever. And also, they’re usually so much more creative and bold and brave than we are.
So here's the million dollar question: what does "defund the police "mean to you?
So to me it means a lot of things. It means my community getting its trash picked up on time because there's more money to pay the workers. It means there being more money for gender nonconforming people to have accessible, affordable housing. It means healthcare. It means education systems that don't treat children as experiments, but are preparing them to be wholesome and brave and to change the world as adults. It means us actually investing and putting money into the things that we know build public safety and trust.
I know that for a lot of people "defund the police" sounds scary, but the truth is that we've been defunding things for so long. We've defunded healthcare in the state, we've defunded education, we've defunded all of the things that everyone deserves to have access to and needs to live. And I don't see a problem with taking money from an institution that quite frankly has a history of harming people that look like me and has its origins in catching people who were enslaved.
I know that people are really thinking about the rising crime that's happening in the city, and I certainly don't mean to diminish people's fear, but if the police were really protecting and serving, then maybe we wouldn't see this high level of crime. And this has happened in the past, where we've seen high levels of crime due to poverty, due to lack of access to health and services and during those moments, we poured more money into law enforcement. Yet the crime rates still would go up. They would still escalate no matter how much money we poured into policing. We've seen that it hasn't worked. And so I just really hope that people can at least be open to reimagining what public safety can look like and realizing that it's up to us to try and build that for ourselves instead of relying on an institution that keeps killing us.
What can people do to get more involved with the ACLU here in Louisiana?
The first thing you can do is you can follow us on social media. We are active on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. We also have a lot of helpful content on our website. We work on everything from reproductive justice, to voting, to policing, to everything in between. And we understand that a lot of these systems and processes really aren't as simple and accessible as they should be. So we have a lot of "know your rights" and educational content on our website. So feel free to check that out and share it with your friends.
And for people who have had either a bad experience with the police, or any experience where they felt like their rights were violated, we encourage people to reach out to us.
AB: Thank you so much for your time, A’Niya!