Getting Back Our Rights


I do not believe in saying the sky is falling when it’s only raining. We are, however, at a time in this nation’s history when, as Republican congressman Bob Barr of Georgia, a certified conservative, says, there has been “a massive suspension of civil liberties in a way that has never been done before in our country. These changes are so vast and fundamental [that they] will likely set precedents that will come back to haunt us terribly.”

Robert Jackson was the attorney general of the United States when he was appointed by Franklin Roosevelt to the Supreme Court in 1941. He took a leave to be chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials of Nazi leaders.

Jackson knew what wartime was like. So did Justice William Brennan, who told me, “Look, pal, we’ve always known—the framers knew—that liberty is a fragile thing.” With regard to what George W. Bush and John Ashcroft are doing to dismantle the Constitution, Brennan was prophetic, as was Jackson, who wrote that our system of government is most dangerous in wartime.

“Government power in wartime is usually exercised in haste and excitement when calm legislative consideration is difficult. It is executed in a time of patriotic fervor. . . . And worst of all, it is interpreted by judges under the influence of the same passion and pressures.”

But this time, judges have not yet had a chance to rule on the violations of the Bill of Rights in the USA PATRIOT Act (the anti-terrorism bill). Nor has there been a court ruling on the evisceration of the right to effective counsel in Ashcroft’s order to wiretap lawyer-client conversations in federal prisons, or on the serial attacks on due process (fairness) in these and other Bush-Ashcroft acts.

This raid on the Constitution climaxed with the president’s order to set up military tribunals that are so in contempt of the rule of law that Spain will not extradite terrorism suspects in its custody because of that edict’s violations of fair trial standards. Nor will the 15 other nations that have signed the European Convention on Human Rights (The New York Times, November 24).

Because much of the media has reported on our vanishing rights only fragmentarily and superficially, most Americans do not know the extent to which Bush and Ashcroft have violated their oath to protect the Constitution.

Civil liberties groups—notably the ACLU—have tried to sound the alarm, but out of necessity, their reports have been primarily reactive. This administration violates the Bill of Rights so frequently that there has been little time to organize a national campaign to restore the Constitution.

There are a few dissenting members of Congress—particularly Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senator Russ Feingold—but Bush and Ashcroft are so confident of huge popular support for what they are doing to preserve “security” that they roll over any congressional dissent. They didn’t consult Congress even when they broke lawyer-client confidentiality; launched a dragnet operation that has swept up well over 1000 people, many imprisoned in secret; and instituted the drumhead military tribunals.

To save our liberties, we have to organize nationally—as was done effectively in the civil rights and antiwar campaigns of the 1960s. There are already a large number of groups that can and should form an organizing and educational network to put ads in newspapers and on radio and television, set up teach-ins on campuses and in town meetings around the country, and plan a March on Washington on the order of the 1963 assembly addressed by Martin Luther King (“I Have a Dream”).

That march—with a very large attendance—was for jobs and freedom, and it led to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other legislation that hardly seemed possible until these Americans fully exercised their constitutional rights to move the government to justice.

During what passed for a congressional debate on the USA PATRIOT Act, the ACLU put together a Coalition in Defense of Freedom at a Time of Crisis. The list of organizations is so long that it would take most of my columns for the rest of the year to print it all.

These groups come from across the political spectrum. Among them: the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee; American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees; Amnesty International USA; Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs; Center for Constitutional Rights; Free Congress Foundation; Gun Owners of America; Leadership Conference on Civil Rights; NAACP Board of Directors; National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; National Council of Churches of Christ.

And: National Council of La Raza, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, National Lawyers Guild, National Native American Bar Association, NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, Physicians for Human Rights, Rutherford Institute.

Now Ashcroft, unsatiated in his attack on the Bill of Rights, is going to revive the most disgraceful part of the FBI’s history—COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program), which operated from 1957 to 1971. COINTELPRO monitored, infiltrated, and disrupted not only alleged Communist organizations but also lawful civil rights and antiwar groups, and various other opponents of government policies—on the right and the left.

The organizations above—along with other groups, high school and college students, the Ralph Nader supporters, and the unorganized around the country who currently feel powerless to regain their rights—can stop this desecration of constitutional democracy. But names on a masthead and writing letters to a newspaper alone won’t do it.

In 1963, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin organized what became the historic March on Washington that shook the late-awakening John F. Kennedy and Congress. I was in Rustin’s jerry-built Harlem headquarters when the organizing was just getting under way. There were some volunteers and an enormous determination not only to speak truth to power but also to make Washington accountable to what this country was supposedly all about.

To paraphrase Joe Hill: Don’t brood and despair, organize! Bayard Rustin was a master organizer, but surely, among the groups on the above list, there are some strategists who can help get us back our rights. They already have a head start, in much greater numbers than Bayard had. Now is the time!