Episode 19: Don't Be A Paper Tiger

Cover Art for Don't Be A Paper Tiger

Fri Mar 15 2019

Mobilize Producer Betsy Nagler wraps up Season 2 with an interview with her father, Stephen Nagler, who was executive director of the New Jersey ACLU and then the Migrant Legal Action program in D.C. Stephen spent a large portion of his life fighting for those who were being denied the protections of the Bill of Rights-- establishing the types of precedents that the Trump administration now seeks to overturn. We explore the role activism played in Stephen's life, and discuss how how he feels about the activism of the current era.


Betsy Nagler: A lot of the battles that activists are fighting against the trump administration today are a continuation of the fight for civil rights and civil liberties for all Americans that has been taking place for decades. My father, Stephen Nagler was a public interest lawyer in the nineteen sixties seventies and eighties who was involved in a lot of that work. As assistant general council for congress of racial equality then executive director of first the New Jersey State ACLU and then the migrant legal action program in Washington D.C. he spent the better part of three decades fighting for those who are being denied the protections of the Bill of Rights, establishing the types of precedents that the current administration seeks to overturn. Last year I sat down and talked to my dad about that work and the role it played in his life and how he feels about the activism of the current era.

Betsy Nagler: So tell me about what your upbringing was like -- where you grew up and how you sort of took an interest in activism.

Stephen Nagler: Well my parents were both socially conscious; I remember the daily worker being in our home when I was a kid.

Betsy Nagler: What's the Daily Worker?

Stephen Nagler: It was to the official newspaper of the US communist party but I don't think my father or my mother were communists. They were not active in any kind of particular political effort. My uncle was a leading labor Zionist, vice president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. I found out a few years later that in 1948 he and a colleague of his spent the year smuggling guns -- to Israel, of course. My uncle was active politically in 19-- I believe 1937 or 1938 my uncle was a candidate for Bronx borough president on the fusion ticket, which was headed by Fiorello LaGuardia who was running for mayor. They got together in reaction to much of the corruption that had been going on in the democratic city administration for many many years. But somewhat later when I was in college I had organized something called the city college public affairs forum. Among the speakers we invited were all of the presidential candidates but you know the fifties and college campuses generally and City College included was a time characterized by what has generally been described by the word apathy. So we would have these programs hold them in a big hall and have fifteen, twenty people in the room and to some extent it was a bit embarrassing. At one point we invited John Gates who at the time was the editor in chief for the Daily Worker. He was invited initially by students at Queens College to speak in Queens and the provost banned him from speaking at Queens College. Well we invited him to speak at City College after we saw that he'd been banned at Queens with a sort of "this can't happen here" attitude and lo and behold the president of City College banned him from speaking as well. We appealed to the board of higher education which affirmed the ban on the grounds that Gates was under indictment under the Smith Act: the act used to convict communists charging them with conspiracy to overthrow the government although none of these people actually were ever involved in any kind of an active effort to overthrow the government of the United States or any other government for that matter. A few months later I issued another invitation, this time to a man named Asa Carter who was the grand dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan and again he was banned by the college president on the grounds that he was under indictment for murder in Alabama and that if he spoke at city college it might interfere with the ability to the State of Alabama to secure a fair trial. A position which we thought was completely ludicrous and the New York Civil Liberties Union declined to take on the case because we were absolutely right and the law was clear and they wouldn't make new law. From that standpoint we felt they were a bit of a paper tiger in that they were willing to tell you what your rights where but they would not take on a matter that protects civil liberties in situations in which civil liberties needed to be protected but in which they would not have the opportunity to make new law. That left an indelible impression on me for many years and decided me in essence to become actively involved in civil rights activities.

Betsy Nagler: Tell me about the Peace Corps and how you ended up in the Peace Corps and so on.

Stephen Nagler: I'd always been active from college on. In 1960 we ran the Kennedy campaign in Queens County and when Kennedy was elected I found the announcement of the Peace Corps very exciting. My wife and I were among the first volunteers to go in the Peace Corps generally and were the first group to go to what was then Nyasaland, which became Malawi while we were there. When we went into the Peace Corps in 1962 it was largely as a means of being active in the whole ethos of the Kennedy Administration and of the Kennedy campaign go to and learn a little bit about Africa and very much become involved with people in the playing an active role outside of teaching with our students that would foster economic development.

We wound up volunteering for the Malawi Development Authority doing tree planting projects along local roads in order to prevent the roads from washing out during heavy rainstorms during the rainy season. I also wrote a chapter in a handbook for magistrates and teaching magistrates we had to figure out which line of law governed the newly independent nation of Malawi. At one point it would have been the high court of South Africa that was dictating the law. At another point it would have been the British Privy Council. At another point it would have been the high court of the federation of Rhodesia in Nyasaland. At another point it would have been the high court of Nyasaland so it was a rather interesting project to decide what the law was and help the country produce a body of laws which governed the country going forward.

Betsy Nagler: Congress of Racial Equality. How'd you end up in that job and what was that?

Stephen Nagler: You know I had two job offers when I came back from the Peace Corps. One was to be an assistant district attorney in New York County and the other was to work for Corps and I chose the Corps job on impulse in essence. I became active assistant general council. It was an overall civil rights organization. It was probably a little bit to the left of the Urban League and the NAACP and a little bit to the right of SNCC and SCLC: Southern Christian Leadership Conference. That was Martin Luther King's organization. And to some extent there was overlap and to some extent the different organizations operated in different areas. For major events like the Selma march there was cooperation between the organizations. Although SCLC was the primary sponsor. So it was quite a busy time from the standpoint of civil rights. You know I was backing up our general council in moving forward civil rights litigation in Louisiana, in Florida and elsewhere in the South as well. I did that for three years and then moved to New Jersey to become executive director of the New Jersey affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union. We did over 500 cases in one year while I was there. We did more cases than any other ACLU affiliate and in fact more cases than the two largest ACLU affiliates, New York and Southern California, combined.

Stephen Nagler: One case that we did that I will never forget involved the rights of a bunch of people to march on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. They were banned from marching on the grounds that they were Nazis and as was the case in every situation like that we won that case and shortly after we won that case I got a call from a client in which he said "You know you people aren't so bad after all. We've decided that when we take power we will give you your choice of flavors of gas." I'm sure he thought that was very funny. I did not.

Betsy Nagler: You people being Jewish people or the ACLU?

Stephen Nagler: The ACLU, civil libertarians, liberals, Jewish people. I don't know whether he made the connection and I didn't ask him what he meant by that. I was rather shocked by the comment.

Betsy Nagler: Did that give you any pause in terms of representing people like that when it came to civil liberties or --

Stephen Nagler: No, if you don't defend civil liberties for the people who are least favored in our society, civil liberties are not safe for anyone. When cases arise, most frequently the group whose rights are infringed are people that are unpopular within a society. Although increasingly among people with a message that may be unpopular with law enforcement authorities that is mainstream within society as a whole.

Betsy Nagler: Right, so you see some kind of connection between that work and protest movements of today such as Black Lives Matter.

Stephen Nagler: Yes, I think the connection is a very clear one. I think efforts recently to pass new statutes blocking or limiting the ability to demonstrate or protest are a serious threat to civil liberties within this country which must be fought tooth and nail.

Betsy Nagler: What other cases for the ACLU are interesting or that you think were some of your best?

Stephen Nagler: There are a number of cases we did involving police brutality. It was a practice among the state police to stop and search unusual vehicles: VW vans. In search of drugs especially the drivers of men with long hair or if the van was painted with some kind of psychedelic colors. The war on drugs is roundly regarded as a failure today and the local manifestations in New Jersey and other states: searches, stop and frisk, and so on, was bad law enforcement from the standpoint of issues of illegal search and seizure.

Stephen Nagler: We were responsible for starting the Frontiero case. The case involved a woman in the military who was denied health benefits for her husband when men in the military were always granted family benefits including their wives and children. This was clearly a constitutional violation of the right of women to equal protections of the laws. A volunteer lawyer who I recruited to handle that case who won the case in the US Supreme Court was a lawyer named Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I was honored several years later when Justice Ginsberg came back to Rutgers Law School and thanked me and one other person active in the ACLU for getting her involved in public interest cases. We also at the time in the ACLU had an office in Newark to handle local problems: anything from welfare to the rights of individuals to secure housing and adequate assistance. We also had an office in the Camden area dealing with the rights of farmworkers which primarily focused on the right to organize which again is a first amendment right. And we formed the first chapter of the ACLU in the prison that was in Trenton. We also started the Prisoners' Rights Project and were unique in terms of ACLU affiliates in that regard. We were the only affiliates to do any of those things. By doing a large number of cases with a large amount of publicity we wanted to focus public attention on the issues. And from a standpoint of education I've always been a major advocate of doing everything you can apart from litigation to educate the public on what their rights are and so on.


Stephen Nagler: We put out a brochure that we distributed to demonstrations as to what your first amendment rights were so that in case there was a problem with the police demonstrators would know that if they were arrested how to defend themselves. We received a grant from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities to do a series of radio programs, which we did for several years and I think the battle for civil liberties ultimately will be won in the public forum through educational programs and I've felt that the national office of the ACLU should be more active in that regard as well.

Stephen Nagler: I went from there to Washington to become the executive director of the Migrant Legal Action Program which was coordinating legal services nationally for migrant seasonal farm workers. And the issues included education, field sanitation, safe water supply, to support the rights of farmworkers to demonstrate free of infringement by local sheriff's offices or vigilantes hired by growers, enforcing fair labor standards, which was one of the few laws that did not exclude farm workers. Farm workers groups were excluded from minimum wage laws. Farm workers were excluded from other protections under labor legislation and we did our best to enforce what rights they did have against heavy resistance from organized agriculture. And that was a constant struggle and the struggle continues to this day.

Betsy Nagler: Why were farm workers' rights treated so differently from other workers' rights?

Stephen Nagler: In part, politically because farm workers have traditionally not been organized. They are almost exclusively working in rural areas where the congressional person will tend to be heavily Republican and tend to be more sympathetic to the people who give them money, namely, the growers. Also many of the migrant workers were immigrants. Some of them were brought in under the H2 program, allowing growers to bring in workers from Mexico, Guatemala, Central America generally, due to claimed insufficiency of American citizen workers who did not, and this to some extent is true, were not interested in doing low paying stoop labor in the field if there were other jobs available that were either more lucrative or less taxing. At one point I was approached by a reporter and he wanted to know more about what was going on with farm workers. And I said if you really want to know, let's go out and do it!" And we hitchhiked down to North Carolina, walked into a migrant camp, and spent two days harvesting peppers. The housing we were placed in was hot. The beds were barely usable. The rooms were heavily infested with mosquitos and so on. And after two nights the reporter said "I've had enough, I don't want to do it anymore" and decided not to go through with our arrangement to stay there an entire week and wound up writing an article or a couple of articles. Which, again, goes to the question of public education and making people aware of what's going on.

Betsy Nagler: How did you balance all this work with having a family, with those responsibilities. And you also had to support your wife because she was doing her own activism doing stuff for NOW...

Stephen Nagler: She was very active in NOW and women's rights activities generally. And at the ACLU I was collaterally involved in women's rights activities as well. You know we were mutually supportive of the activities we each engaged in and agreed as a matter of policy with what both of us were doing.

Betsy Nagler: Right, this is something I know I've talked about with mom. You know she didn't really want to take us to demonstrations. How did you try and find a way to, you know, pass on your values without forcing the kids to do certain things or have certain beliefs or--

Stephen Nagler: We didn't--we told the kids what we were doing but we didn't try to say "you should believe this" or "you should share our views" they just came to do that from understanding what we were doing and why we were doing it from the conversations that we were having around the dinner table and they picked it up that way. And they might have been genetically predisposed to be sympathetic to what their parents were doing.

Betsy Nagler: What kind of advice would you give to people today when this is such a challenging environment who are looking to get into activism and do something about this and you know it's very easy to get discouraged.

Stephen Nagler: Yeah well it's true. It is a problem and many people suffer from what you have to call inertia. You know it's much easier to sit at home and watch the results of a demonstration with which you're sympathetic than to get out and demonstrate. To some extend the administration is very helpful in that regard because they continue to come out with one outrage after another from the standpoint of public policy. And those outrages are in many cases sufficient to stimulate people who might otherwise not be active.

Betsy Nagler: What do you see the outcome of all of this you know, what the administration is doing, what people are doing in opposition, where do you think this is going to go?

Stephen Nagler: Well, when then President Pence seeks to run for reelection, um...

Betsy Nagler: So you're pretty confident about an impeachment happening?

Stephen Nagler: I don't really know whether it'll be impeachment or a record that is so horrendous that even the Republican party will refuse to renominate a sitting president, which virtually never happens. I think the next president will be a Democrat and my hope is that it'll be someone from the left wing of the Democratic party. Who that person will be, whether it'll be Elizabeth Warren or someone like that I think it's too soon to say. But it depends on what the mainstream of the Democratic party will do. How actively they will resist what's going on coming out of the administration and it depends on how effective they'll be. But reform has to start at the grassroots level. You have to bring people out to do the right thing. You have to convince them that staying home and sitting on their hands when they hate what is being done is not going to get the kind of changes that they want or prevent the kind of changes that they fear. "I better show up. I've gotta speak out. I've got to express my views and try to convince others and I've got to be, most of all, in order to do that have to be informed about the issues." Activism today is more important than ever before.

Cory Choy: Hey everyone. Cory here and I just wanted to give a little message now that we're wrapping up Season 2 of Mobilize. So, you know, two years ago after the 2016 elections concluded everybody was in a rough state and we knew we were going to be in the fight of our lives--of our time. And that's what it's been for the last two years. We've seen time and time again from the criminals and bigots and all around violent people in the White House and their enablers just unleash attacks on our neighbors, our friends, our families, our communities, and it's been pretty rough but there've been some really exciting and important bright spots too. I think, the last two years have shown us as a country that not only is it important for us to stand up and fight against evil but when we stand up and we stand together we can win. It's not too late for our country. It's not too late. Some of the big wins, some of the really exciting things that we were able to be a small part of through Mobilize were when the first Muslim ban was issued and thousands of people took to JFK and we shut down that airport and we sent a message that if you cross this line, citizens will stand up and we will force the politicians, we will force the people that set the rules that govern our lives, our collective lives, we will force them to go back. There are certain lines that you cannot cross and when we stand up, when the people get out in the streets, and when we shut things down results happen.

Another great win for us was when Mobilize subject Kristin Mink confronted Scott Pruitt in a D.C. dining establishment and a few days later he resigned from office. That was really exciting and showed the power that an individual could do. So there have been a lot of wins. So where do we go from here? The 2020 election is coming up. That's our next big chance to make a huge difference for good in our country and our democracy. And it's not our goal to just spotlight the different contenders or follow the political news of the moment. That's not what we're looking to do. What we'd hopefully like to do for this next upcoming season, Season 3, of Mobilize is talk about: How do we as progressive, as liberal, as moral people, how do we move forward to the 2020 elections united with people we may have legitimate disagreements with but being united in order to beat the corruption, the hatred, that is Donald Trump and his party? How do we stay together, how do we make sure we win the important fights so that our legitimate differences of opinion of how we tackle problems we know we need to solve can happen. Because unless we win. Unless Donald Trump loses, we're not going to be able to have discussions on how we solve the problems for our country. We're going to be fighting to be recognizing that these problems are even real. So thank you for being with us for all these episodes and we look forward to more.