Post–9-11 Civil Rights

If You're Black, Who's Got Your Back?

Three African American Democrats in Congress sit on the Judiciary Committee and were there through the passage last year of the USA Patriot Act: Conyers (the ranking Democrat of the House Judiciary Committee and a sponsor of the act), and representatives Maxine Waters and Robert Scott. As Nat Hentoff has reported, Waters, and Representative Barney Frank, "put some elements of the Bill of Rights back" into the original draft of the USA Patriot Act. After another version of the act suddenly emerged from some backroom maneuvering (see Hentoff, November 20, 2001), House members Conyers, Waters, Jesse Jackson Jr., and Cynthia McKinney, among others, voted against it. Conyers, Scott, Waters, Jackson, McKinney, and outgoing CBC chair Eddie Bernice Johnson did not respond to Voice calls and/or questions.

Last June 13, House Judiciary chairman James Sensenbrenner Jr. and Conyers, acting in their oversight capacity, sent a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft demanding a full accounting of how the USA Patriot Act has been implemented. They asked about its use of grand juries; electronic, wire, and oral intercept information; search warrants; the obtaining of records from libraries, bookstores, and newspapers; civil rights abuses; and other issues. There were questions regarding legal foundations for practices such as lengthy detentions, and procedures to ensure First Amendment rights protection. This fall four response letters came from Assistant Attorney General Daniel Bryant, declaring some answers to be classified, and material for public release did not contain a great deal of detail. Clearly, though, Conyers struggles on at the heart of the problem. NAACP president Kwesi Mfume was unavailable for comment; attempts to reach Minister Kevin Muhammad of Harlem's Temple #7 and Imam Siraj Wahhaj of the Al-Taqwa Mosque in Brooklyn were unsuccessful.

The Trent Lott tempest is unfortunately a reminder that the black public is still unaware of any leaders, organization, or coalition proposing an African American agenda for the 21st century. Maybe improving the representation from Mississippi should be on it. We are still stuck in a cycle of reaction that is often all about sound bites and seldom about jobs, education, shelter, and constitutional rights.

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