By Rory Fleming
On Feb. 9, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an opinion column from Vikrum Aiyer, a Deputy Director of the ACLU who works on “nationwide political advocacy & campaigns across economic justice & gender justice issues (including worker’s rights, housing equity, reproductive freedom & transgender advocacy).” Its title blares “I work for the ACLU because I want to end mass incarceration. I also support Breed’s Tenderloin plan.”
As perhaps expected, the column is a tangled mess of ideologies. Aiyer, a San Francisco resident, writes, “lately, we’re told we can either protect our community from crime or stand for social justice — not both.” He talks about moms feeling like their kids are not safe walking to school. He urges readers to support Mayor London Breed’s new, tough-on-crime public safety plan for the Tenderloin neighborhood, which involves flooding it with more cops to try to prevent nonviolent crimes like drug dealing and petty theft.
Various state ACLU affiliates, as well as current and former staffers, expressed frustration and outrage at Aiyer’s column. The ACLU of Northern California, which serves the city of San Francisco, tweeted “We want to be clear: Vikrum Aiyer was writing in his personal capacity as a San Francisco resident. The views expressed were his own and do not represent the ACLU’s official position.
Except they kind of do, at the moment. One former state level staffer tweeted about the “noted hierarchy between national [ACLU] and affiliates – especially those dependent on funding from national,” and other problematic ways the ACLU umbrella treats some employees as superior to others. This fits with what I saw as a board member of the ACLU of North Carolina.
Regardless of whether the views are “his alone,” I believe the ACLU should fire Vikrum Aiyer from his position. The ACLU is not a government entity, so the First Amendment is not relevant to the situation. More importantly, I don’t think Aiyer should have been hired in the first place for several reasons.
According to LinkedIn, Aiyer was hired in April 2021 after a couple of noteworthy jobs, including six years in the U.S. Department of Commerce during the Obama presidency and nearly four years building the Postmates brand for Uber. Aiyer was also a Commissioner on Mayor London Breed’s Workforce Investment Board, as well as a board member for Chamber of Progress.
As far as I am concerned, Aiyer sounds like what commentator Corey Robin describes as an “Obamanaut:” someone who gets teary-eyed thinking of former President Barack Obama, because he or she has a “passion for office and state, a calling for power distilled of all impurities.” Obama was respectable and moderate. Obama avoided controversial opinions on hard issues, leading him to build up the deportation machine that Trump later used to wreak havoc, as well as cause grievous harms to the Syrian people.
Aiyer’s resume conveys no interest in civil rights, and perhaps an apathy about them. Chamber of Progress, for example, is a tech company lobby group that vehemently opposes labor rights for gig economy workers. By becoming San Francisco’s mayor, London Breed improved political representation for Black people in her city, but she also has served as a consistent roadblock to a more humane local criminal justice system. However, the Obama-tied Aiyer is a palpable member of the moderate liberal political ecology.
Unfortunately, Aiyer’s hire was smart for the “new” ACLU, which has arguably lost its way since Trump was elected in 2016. It got more and more involved in politics, always for Democrats, from the local to national level. And like a political organization, the ACLU now picks its battles to fight based on what is palpable and popular, not what the greatest constitutional rights violations are.
Make no mistake: London Breed’s Tenderloin policy cannot be disentangled from civil rights and her desire to break them for political expediency and popularity. It cannot be disentangled from her goal to eliminate the public presence of homeless people, who have a constitutional right to sleep outside and loiter. The ACLU wants to end the War on Drugs, which it considers racist. Take the drugs out of the Tenderloin situation, and mostly what you have left is non-criminal loitering.
Did Aiyer miss the memo?
He claims that “[t]oo many local politicians and activists pit criminal justice reform, police reform and public safety against each other.” But the debate San Francisco is having about crime is not about balancing decarceration with public safety. It is about right-wing billionaires teaming up with local news outlets to concoct a narrative that reformist District Attorney Chesa Boudin is destroying San Francisco–sometimes to the point of employing outright lies against him. The Chronicle has run its fair share of misleading content to bolster the narrative. Aiyer would have known this context, being a politically involved individual who lives in that city. Reasonably knowing that was the side of things his column would benefit, Aiyer had it published anyway.
Rory Fleming is a writer and a lawyer.