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It took me about five minutes to become a fan of Joyce Hamilton Henry, the new executive director of the Central Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, because I saw in her the one thing that is often absent from Orlando's progressive community: leadership.

Too often in this city, progressive ideals wither on the vine — not from a lack of good intentions, but a lack of focus. And that's the void into which Hamilton Henry steps. She has a Ph.D. in social policy and spent four years as the director of DemocracyWorks, a Hartford, Conn.-based nonprofit aimed at increasing civic participation among disadvantaged groups. (DemocracyWorks closed in 2007.)

In our hourlong conversation, Hamilton Henry stressed the importance of getting progressive groups to "pack a more powerful punch." The local ACLU's first stab at this will be an Aug. 23 town hall meeting on police misconduct (which I will be moderating).

What follows are excerpts from our interview, in which Hamilton Henry explains both the town hall forum and her priorities.

Orlando Weekly: Let's discuss what you hope to accomplish here.

Joyce Hamilton Henry: I am very pleased to be working with the ACLU of Florida and to be able to have the option of going the litigation route, because I think that's how we're going to be able to `defeat` systemic institutional barriers, especially in civil rights violations and violations of civil liberties. And when we're talking about an increasing number of individuals who are feeling disenfranchised, marginalized — and we're talking about historically underrepresented groups — it is so important to take to heart what our mission says, which is to be a watchdog. And I do take that seriously.

The ACLU has been involved in restoring voting rights to felons. There's been some movement on that in Florida — last year, the state Cabinet voted to allow ex-cons to have their civil rights, including voting rights, restored more quickly. Since a lot of voting rights problems in recent years have been concentrated in poor and minority neighborhoods, what do you see as the ACLU's role in that issue?

It's really looking at that particular population in the current clemency process and feeling concern that not enough requests to have individuals' rights restored will happen — realistically, won't happen in time to have them vote. We're concerned about that. … The real problem is that the offices that are required to do investigations to ensure that individuals can have their rights restored are understaffed. … Does that create a Catch-22? It does. Does that mean there will be a backlog in processing? Yes, there will be. Does it mean that more people could come on the `voter` rolls that will not be able to come on the rolls in time to vote? There definitely will be, and we're very concerned about that.

Tell me about some of your other priorities.

Voting, getting people to vote; and I can tell you, this coalition … of organizations is actively out there registering people. They've set goals, some have reached their goals, some have surpassed their goals. … Racial profiling is a constant. It's inherent in some of the issues and concerns that we're hearing about. … The area has so many organizations that are working on comparable issues. What I envision is the opportunity, and we started that process ourselves as well, of seeing these organizations working together. … Hence, the police misconduct forum we are having on Aug. 23 is intended to give the public an opportunity to talk about these issues, but talk about them in the context of what are the clear options that they can exercise to address the problems themselves. … But the second part of that is we are exploring putting in place a task force that will gather data — hard-core data — that will tell us the number of incidents, what the practices are, good, bad, ugly. Out of that, we intend to come up with recommendations, and we intend to work collectively … to put some teeth into this. There's existing structure — the Citizens' Police Review Board is in place — but we keep hearing that it doesn't have enough teeth.

People talk it, but we intend to walk it in terms of truly empowering individuals with information, informing them about their rights, and if necessary — if necessary — litigate on their behalf, which we have full capacity to do.

You've partnered with a number of progressive groups to host the Aug. 23 forum. Tell me more about that.

That's an example of the kind of coalition-building, partnering, that I think is necessary to address the issue. Singularly, we might not be able to make a dent.

Collectively, we pack a more powerful punch in terms of thinking that this is real, and that people are at the point now where they expect action.

expect action.

With police misconduct and other issues, there are often sort of these entrenched bureaucracies that get in the way of significant action. How do you plan to get around that?

It's not a matter of getting around it; it's going straight at it, really. I think you have to go to the stakeholders, you have to go to the power structure, you have to go directly to those individuals and say, "This is real. This is happening. You need to do something. And we're not talking about Band-Aids here. We're talking about systemic change; we're talking about institutional change. People are bleeding on the sidewalk, `while` you sit in a `meeting` debating whether this is real or not. This is real, and you have to address it."


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