Knaack joined ACLU of South Carolina in early 2020 | Provided

Q&A with Frank Knaack

Frank Knaack is stepping down as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina (ACLU) and moving to New Hampshire for a similar position, where he will also be closer to family. Knaack joined the South Carolina chapter in January 2020, helping guide the ACLU response after last year’s protests following George Floyd’s killing, a tough local election, pandemic legislative battles, the fallout from Jamal Sutherland’s death in county custody and more.

Knaack found his place with the ACLU more than 20 years ago in Washington, D.C., where he said he fell in love with the century-old advocacy group. And for the last 11 years, he has worked at multiple branches across the South, as well as other social justice groups before coming to Charleston. Knaack said he disliked the increasingly common idea of stripping away rights to increase public safety. The ACLU agreed.

“By enhancing our liberties, we actually enhance our security,” he said. “The ACLU stood by that principle back then, and history has obviously proved them right.” 

We caught up with Knaack over Zoom — he is in Vermont with family during the transition — to talk about some of his work down South.

City Paper: What changes have you seen in the state and in Charleston during your time at the ACLU?

Frank Knaack: The thing I’m most excited and optimistic about is there’s been a real shift in the narrative around public safety, both in Charleston and, I think, statewide. People are starting to recognize that policing is not necessarily the tool that is best to keep us and our community safe. We need to look at root issues and invest in housing, invest in transportation, ensure we have living wages and ensure we have quality public education and health care
— things the pandemic magnified. 

These coalitions have really come together, (bringing) together people who were traditionally in different spaces — environmental justice advocates, housing advocates, transportation advocates, racial justice advocates — all focused on this reimagining of public safety and ensuring [Charleston’s] budget actually reflects the needs of the community. 

CP: Is there anything else you think that still needs to be done or something you would like to have seen change while you were here?

FK: There’s still a lot that needs to be done. We’ve seen the beginning of progress, but none of this is going to be a quick and easy fix. We have entrenched institutions that are opposed to these changes — police institutions, business institutions, etc. — that have been able to profit off these systems. But the infrastructure is there for the change to happen now.

CP: What do you think the next immediate steps are to make these changes happen?

FK: It’s continuing to build public education around what policing is actually doing. In Charleston, for example, what CPD (Charleston Police Department) is actually doing, how they actually police. They’ve been really good at perpetuating this myth that they’re out there arresting the bad people and keeping the good people safe, but we’ve been able to prove, with their own datasets, that what they’re spending the majority of their time on is arresting predominantly Black and brown people for low-level things like marijuana possession, open container and loitering. They’re spending a small fraction of their time actually dealing with serious criminal matters, and I think it’s going to be continuing to educate people on these basic facts.

CP: We’ve been talking about high-level police and criminal justice reform for over a year now. Are there any other areas where Charleston is in need of larger change?

FK: Absolutely. I think our voting system, in the continued efforts by state and local officials to restrict the fundamental right to vote, is something that remains under attack. We’ve seen some small victories in those areas. We also have redistricting on a similar front. Efforts by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are really not about ensuring that their voters pick them but ensuring they get to pick their voters. There’s also LGBTQ rights — we saw attack after attack after attack on trans youth last legislative session, unfortunately. It was a total of five attempts to attack trans youth through various mechanisms. Abortion is front and center under attack as well, with the first legislative act they passed last session.

A lot of these issues, along with the pandemic and masks — some were predictable. But even those that were unpredictable, in the case of COVID, were also predictable in the sense that they were the natural outcome of a system that’s in place to oppress certain community members at the benefit of others. 

CP: If you could leave a message for your colleagues with the ACLU in South Carolina, those who will pick up where you left off, what would it be?

FK: There’s absolutely amazing work going on in South Carolina right now. The organizing work among our partners
— the collaborative nature of the advocacy community here is absolutely amazing. But this is just going to be long-term building of infrastructure. Nothing is going to happen overnight. So dig in, and be ready for the long haul. Because that’s what it’s going to be.