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In 1756, in Boston and other cities and towns, the coming of the American Revolution was speeded by mechanics, merchants, and artisans who organized against British tyranny. Calling themselves the Sons of Liberty, they set up committees of correspondence in the colonies to spread detailed news about British attacks on their liberties. They focused on the general search warrant, which allowed customs officers to invade and ransack their homes and offices at will.
In the spirit of the Sons of Liberty, on February 4 of this year, some 300 citizens of Northampton, Massachusetts, held a town meeting to organize ways to — as they put it — protect the residents of the town from the Bush-Ashcroft USA Patriot Act. On that night, the Northampton Bill of Rights Defense Committee began a new American Revolution. Similar committees are organizing around the country.
Speakers at that town meeting were defying John Ashcroft, who threatened dissenters in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last year. He denounced those “who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty… Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies.”
But speakers at the meeting emphasized that the USA Patriot Act and the the succession of unilateral Ashcroft-Bush orders that followed apply not only to noncitizens but also to Americans in that very hall. William Newman, director of the ACLU of Western Massachusetts, pointed out that law enforcement agencies are now permitted “the same access to your Internet use and to your e-mail use that they had to your telephone records” — and may overstep their authority. “The history of the FBI,” Newman warned, “is that they will do exactly that.”
Also speaking was University of Massachusetts professor Bill Strickland, whom I first met when he directed the Northern Student Movement during the civil rights campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s. Said Strickland, “The elements of the Patriot Act place all of us in danger.”
One result of that meeting was a petition, signed by over 1000 Northamptonites, urging the town government to approve a “resolution to defend the Bill of Rights.” Thanks to a persistent organizing drive, that resolution passed the Northampton city council by a unanimous vote on May 2. It targets not only the USA Patriot Act but also all subsequent actions by Ashcroft and others that “threaten key rights guaranteed to U.S. citizens and noncitizens by the Bill of Rights and the Massachusetts Constitution.”
Among those key rights: “freedom of speech, assembly, and privacy; the right to counsel and due process in judicial proceedings; and protection from unreasonable searches and seizures.”
The city of Northampton officially asks, from now on, that “federal and state law enforcement report to the local Human Rights Commission all local investigations undertaken under aegis of the [USA Patriot] Act and Orders; and that the community’s congressional representatives actively monitor the implementation of the Act and Orders, and work to repeal those sections found unconstitutional.”
This is a signal to the mostly passive members of Congress that actual voters are watching them.
In April, similar resolutions to defend the Bill of Rights from the Bush administration and from complicit members of Congress afraid to challenge Ashcroft were passed in the nearby towns of Amherst and Leverett. And Dr. Marty Nathan, of the ever industrious Northampton Bill of Rights Defense Committee, informs me that “the city councils of Ann Arbor and Berkeley passed civil liberties resolutions in January,” as did the Denver city council in March and the city council in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on June 17. Other cities are also preparing resolutions.
You would think this grassroots movement to secure our liberties would be of interest to the national media, but I have seen little of it on television or in the print press.
To find out about these campaigns around the country, and about a range of organizing tools, you can visit the Northampton Bill of Rights Defense Committee’s website.
At the town meeting in Leverett, Massachusetts, Don Ogden, who initiated the resolution, noted — and I hope the FBI transmits this to John Ashcroft — that “it is truly Orwellian doublespeak to call such unpatriotic efforts a ‘patriot act.’ ”
Like Northampton, the town of Amherst also passed its resolution unanimously. Select Board Person Anne Awad did not at all see Ashcroft’s “phantoms of lost liberty,” but rather a clear and present danger to our constitutional rights.
“As members of the Select Board,” she said, “we want to know that all residents and visitors to our town feel safe. We do not want to support profiling of particular types of people. If one group is viewed suspiciously today, another group will be added to the list tomorrow.”
A further indication that many Americans are ahead of their representatives in Washington in wanting to be safe from Ashcroft is an April 24 Associated Press report: “Despite the fear of future terrorist attacks, a majority of Americans are unwilling to give up civil liberties in exchange for national security, according to a Michigan State University study. Nearly 55 percent of 1488 people surveyed nationwide said they don’t want to give up constitutional rights in the government’s fight against terrorism.
“The telephone survey, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, was conducted from November 14 through January 15 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.7 percentage points.” Sixty-six percent “opposed government monitoring of telephone and e-mail conversations.”
The original Sons of Liberty were an instrumental cause of the American Revolution, and they spread the liberating news without an Internet. Think of how much more and swifter organizing can be done on the web now. Let me know, at the Voice, what other towns and cities are doing to keep the Bill of Rights alive. Please do not use e-mail.