Shrouded in ambiguity and cloaked in deep secrecy, this administration continues to suddenly, and sometimes unexpectedly, drop its decisions upon the public and Congress, and expect obedient approval, without question, without debate, without opposition. —West Virginia Democratic senator Robert Byrd, West Virginia Gazette, June 29, 2002
Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. —Judge Learned Hand, speech delivered on “I Am an American Day,” New York City, May 21, 1944
I have never seen the American Civil Liberties Union as energized as it is now by Attorney General John Ashcroft. You may have seen some of its television ads in its $3.5 million campaign to defend the Constitution, called “Safe and Free.”
Part of that campaign—as noted by Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office—involves the “ACLU’s working with dozens of communities around the country to go on the record against repressive legislation.” She adds, “Local governments have the power to tell their law enforcement officers not to spy without evidence of crime. With the help of ACLU members and activists around the country, we will encourage them to say no as strongly as possible.”
This grassroots network of freedom fighters actually began independently, with a meeting of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee in Northampton, Massachusetts, in February of this year. Now, spurred by the Massachusetts initiative, 15 city or town councils around the country have passed resolutions aimed at protecting their citizens from General Ashcroft. And other such affirmations of the Bill of Rights are pending in 40 other town and cities in 24 states.
By and large, these resolutions are similar to the one passed unanimously by the Northampton City Council on May 2, 2002, which required that:
“Local law enforcement continue to preserve residents’ freedom of speech, religion, assembly and privacy; rights to counsel and due process in judicial proceedings; and protection from unreasonable searches and seizures even if requested or authorized to infringe upon these rights by federal law enforcement acting under new powers granted by the USA Patriot Act or orders of the Executive Branch.”
Furthermore, “Federal and state law enforcement officials acting within the City” are asked to “work in accordance with the policies of the Northampton Police Department . . . by not engaging in or permitting detentions without charges or [using] racial profiling in law enforcement.”
Also, “the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Massachusetts State police [are to] report to the Northampton Human Rights Commission regularly and publicly the extent to and manner in which they have acted under the USA Patriot Act, new Executive Orders, or COINTELPRO-type regulations.” This includes “disclosing the names of the detainees held in western Massachusetts or any Northampton residents detained elsewhere.”
In addition, and this is included in all the other resolutions by Bill of Rights Defense Committees around the nation, “Our United States Congressmen and Senators [are requested] to monitor the implementation of the [USA Patriot] Act and [Executive] Orders cited herein and actively work for the repeal of the parts of that Act and those Orders that violate fundamental rights and liberties as stated in the Constitutions of the Commonwealth and the United States.”
Many of these defense committees are working with ACLU affiliates; and as this quintessential patriotic defense of the Constitution keeps adding new towns and cities, I find it remarkable and dismaying that so little print, radio, or television attention is being paid to such authentic Americanism. But the Internet is spreading the word directly, or through links, from and to the Northampton Bill of Rights Defense Committee’s Web site, bordc.org.
That Web site also provides a series of “Tips and Tools for Organizing Resolutions in Defense of the Bill of Rights”—from “Community Outreach and Fundraising” to setting up letter-writing tables.
On October 16, the Madison, Wisconsin, city council passed a resolution protecting the Bill of Rights from the Justice Department. During the four hours of debate, West High sophomore Sol Kelley-Jones, representing Students for an Informed Response, which helped draft the resolution, said:
“We need to do more than be passive observers of history, because the decisions being made right now are our future. . . . Laws like the USA Patriot Act were passed in the name of freedom, but what they really do is take away our freedom to fully participate in our nation’s democracy.
“The Patriot Act,” she continued, “means government surveillance of our school, library, and Internet activities without even being told. Even reading certain books or researching certain topics, both constitutionally protected activities, are now grounds for criminal investigation.
“For many of you in this room who were active in the civil rights movement of the ’60s, you’ve been down a similar road before, and for my generation it’s a road we don’t want to go down again.”
Now that Donald Rumsfeld’s Defense Department’s Office of Information Awareness is organizing what John Markoff (The New York Times, November 9) accurately describes as “a vast electronic dragnet”—without search warrants—that will result in “a system of national surveillance of the American public,” I expect that General Ashcroft will be confronted with more Bill of Rights defense committees.
But right now this Orwellian monster can be stopped only if citizens’ pressure results in hearings before the Intelligence, Appropriations, Armed Forces, and Governmental Operations committees. And the publisher of 1984 should start printing more copies. Next week: The Defense Department’s Total Information Awareness System will be watching you!