For 27 years, Chris Link worked as the Executive Director at the Ohio ACLU. Recently retired, we spoke with Link about her roots as an advocate for abortion access, her work fighting the prison-industrial complex and the current fight for immigrant rights during the Trump administration.
Prior to working at the ACLU, you worked for Planned Parenthood and NARAL. What inspired you to take up work fighting for civil liberties, especially reproductive rights?
The times. I went to a Catholic girl’s school from 1966 to 1970 that changed overnight from discipline and rigidity to the nuns organizing anti-war rallies. The Catholic Church was in the midst of something called liberation theology, and that was very influential. Most of the old nuns— who used to hit us with rulers— were gone, and the new teachers were only 25 and gave us this view of compassion and humanity. [As I grew older], I got rid of the God stuff and kept that part.
In college, before abortion became a legal practice, I became involved in the underground abortion movement in Northeast Ohio. Later, I helped start one of the first abortion clinics in Cleveland, called National Health Care. Of course, we were all involved in anti-war stuff— you know, we hardly went to class back then, and faculty hardly ever showed up! We were all in the movement.
How have things changed since you first became Executive Director in 1990?
I’m sorry to say that on first amendment work, the courts have moved away from the idea of separation of church and state toward the idea of accommodation. For example, you’re not allowed to put a picture of Jesus in a public school— however, if you collect pictures of all the leaders of all the religions and put them up in the hallway at a public school, that’s allowed. This country was founded on the need for separation of church and state because of the experiences of our European ancestors. Democracy thrives in an environment where nobody gets to invoke God.
A focus of the Ohio ACLU in recent years has been to question the concept of for-profit prisons. What motivated that?
Our work on for-profit prisons is just one star in a constellation under a universe called mass incarceration. Under mass incarceration, we have the Prisons for Profit campaign, the School to Prison Pipeline campaign, the Debtors Prison campaign and we’re just developing the Bail Reform campaign. All of that is derived from Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow,” which we as an organization embraced five years ago and has now been included in two five-year strategic plans.
What is the Ohio ACLU doing to protect vulnerable immigrant populations under the Trump administration?
With the Muslim ban, we had lawyers at every international port of entry. We had lawyers in Washington and New York doing a hotline for any lawyer who called us. We had lawyers calling us from all over the state, because Ohio has a lot of colleges and universities, and many universities have large immigrant populations. Our legal department started a training program for volunteer attorneys in conjunction with a professor from University of Akron, so that we can act as a source providing lawyers to represent people who have been rounded up by the Trump administration.
Over the course of your 27 years at the ACLU, which fight would you say you are most proud of?
Establishing rights for homeless people. All across the state, cops would arrest them, harass them, take their stuff. They weren’t allowed to fall asleep on a bench. Near Christmas, retail establishments in the big cities would ask the police to get rid of them, so they would round them up and drive them far away, dumping them in industrial areas. We led the fight with a large group of these cases in the 1990s that set a lot of precedents, including getting them the right to vote (since you needed an address to register.)
What will you miss most about working for the ACLU?
The people, of course. I grew up in a small country town. All I wanted out of college was to meet people who were different – different races, a variety of professions— and joining the ACLU just exploded my world.