Two days before the anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, more than 1,000 New Yorkers turned out on Wall Street to protest Attorney General John Ashcroft and the USA Patriot Act.
It was the biggest protest yet to greet Ashcroft on his 16-city tour to defend the Patriot Act's antiterrorist provisions against a growing chorus of critics on both the left and right. Ashcroft used his invite-only appearance at Federal Hall, just blocks from Ground Zero, to insist that the lawwhich expands the government's authority to survey personal records, spy on activist and religious groups, and detain non-citizens indefinitelyis crucial to maintaining the city's safety. "The painful lesson of September 11 remains the touchstonereminding us of the government's responsibility to protect the lives and preserve the liberty of the American people," the Attorney General said.
But the fact that his opponents were kept penned behind a maze of police barricades, under the watchful eye of police sharpshooters and bomb-sniffing dogs, seemed to demonstrate otherwise.
Many said they were particularly outraged that Ashcroft came to lobby here on the eve of the 9-11 anniversaryand that he did so at Federal Hall, where the Bill of Rights was first introduced.
"I feel offended that the Attorney General has come, and just like the President, has looked for opportunities to feed 9-11 into his political agenda," said Andrew Rice, whose brother was killed at the World Trade Center. Rice is a member of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a group of some 100 relatives of 9-11 victims that formed to oppose the war on terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq. "It doesn't bring any justice to my brother's memory to have a law-abiding Arab-American be detained and held without seeing a lawyer and then deported," Rice told the crowd, adding, "If you look at the law, I could be named a domestic terrorist if they found that my public protest was a risk to the national security of the United States."
That's precisely the type of claim Ashcroft hopes his tour will refute. But by confining his audiences to law-enforcement officials and refusing to take follow-up questions from reporters, the Attorney General has only reinforced complaints that the Bush Administration seeks to secure freedoms for some at the expense of others.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, assailed the tour as a "stealth road show," noting that the Attorney General had only made his New York schedule public on Friday. "Ashcroft is seeking to kill democracy behind closed doors," Lieberman charged. But even Federal Hall's thick marble walls could not fully screen out the sound of demonstrators chanting, "Ashcroft, Go Home! Leave Our Bill of Rights Alone!"
The demo drew a mix of immigrant-rights defenders, seasoned anti-Bush demonstrators, local office workers, and alarmed citizens like Robert Hickman, a 41-year-old artist from Williamsburg who arrived carrying his three-year-old son Caleb and a hand-penned sign reading, "Doofus!"
"I came because of how stupid he is," Hickman said of the Attorney General. "His religiosity is terrifying. He believes he's above the law."
Such complaints reflect a growing grassroots movement to roll back the Patriot Act. Already, some 160 cities and three states (Hawaii, Alaska, and Vermont) have passed resolutions opposing the legislation as a threat to civil liberties.
Though largely symbolic, activists hope these measures will convince Congress to rein in some of the Patriot Act's most sweeping provisions. While the Justice Department has sought to paint critics as card-carrying ACLU members, going so far as to launch a website to counter ACLU "myths," some of the staunchest opposition has come from the right. In July, the House overwhelmingly approved a bill sponsored by conservative Republican C. L. Otter of Idaho to overturn the so-called "sneak and peak" provision, which allows officials to execute search warrants secretly and delay notifying their targets. Another House bill to limit the government's ability to tap library and bookstore records is gaining support, and a Senate version is expected shortly.
Meanwhile, the uproar sparked by a leaked draft of Ashcroft's so-called "Patriot Act II" billwhich proposed allowing the feds to strip citizenship from any American who provides support for a group the government deems a "terrorist organization"seems to have scared the Attorney General from releasing it.
Just a day before Ashcroft's New York visit, the Justice Department's own Inspector General issued a report criticizing federal officials for failing to implement rules to distinguish between illegal aliens arrested in terror investigations and those detained for simple immigration violations. (In June, the Inspector General had faulted the government for allowing hundreds of immigrants with no clear terror ties to languish in jail for months under harsh conditions.)
In New York City, activists are rallying behind Resolution 909, a measure introduced by Harlem Councilmember Bill Perkins in May that goes further than most local resolutions across the country in seeking to curb the reach of the Patriot Act. Beyond simply condemning the Act, it directs the NYPD to refrain from spying on activist and religious groups and asks police to stop enforcing federal immigration laws. It also calls on federal officials to release the names of all 9-11 terror detainees.
"If New York can pass a resolution like this, it will really put the Bush Administration and the rest of the country on notice," says Udi Ofer of the New York City Bill of Rights Defense Campaign, a project of the NYCLU that has mobilized hundreds of volunteers across the city. So far 22 council members have signed on to Resolution 909, but Ofer expects opposition from more conservative council members like Peter Vallone Jr. of Queens, as well as heavyhitting pols like Senator Charles Schumer. Schumer not only supports the Patriot Act but introduced a Senate bill earlier this year that would actually expand the government's ability to issue secret surveillance warrants against noncitizens [see story].
But on the street, Ashcroft seemed to be losing the PR war. "I think he needs to go into hiding or resign, because he's not doing anything for security here," commented Sonji Braxton, an insurance agent and single mom who wandered by on her lunch hour, gesturing at the police sharpshooters posted on the roof of Federal Hall. "This is America and it terrorizes me to come to work. And now they want more money to pay for this war? What about the money to educate my child? They need to pull our boys out of Iraq and bring 'em home, because everything they're doing over there just makes it worse."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.