100th Civil Liberties Safe Zone!


On May 6, the commissioners of Broward County, Florida, in a unanimous vote, passed the 100th local resolution in the United States proclaiming “a civil liberties safe zone.”

These resolutions are directed at the Bush-Ashcroft war on the Bill of Rights. However, the undeterred Attorney General is planning to introduce in Congress USA Patriot Act II, which would much more radically reduce individual liberties in the holy name of national security.

I use “holy” in reference to what John Ashcroft proclaimed on May 1, the National Day of Prayer. During a four-hour prayer service on Capitol Hill, he declared that “it is faith and prayer that are the sources of this nation’s strength.”

However, just as God is not cited in the Constitution, a rapidly growing number of Americans are insisting that neither God nor Ashcroft guarantees our freedoms in the Bill of Rights. These patriots believe, as Thomas Jefferson said, that the people “are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

In the spirit of Jefferson, on the same day that Broward County became part of the Resistance, it was joined by San Mateo, Marin, and Sausalito counties, all in California. On April 25, Hawaii’s legislature passed the first statewide resolution to preserve and protect the Bill of Rights. Alaska followed on May 22. On May 29, Philadelphia became the 116th town or city to pass one of these resolutions.

According to Nancy Talanian, director of the original Bill of Rights Defense Committee in Northampton, Massachusetts—where this grassroots renewal of constitutional democracy started—the term civil liberties zone means “a locale whose local government has passed a resolution declaring its commitment to protect the civil liberties of its residents.”

Talanian is a longtime invaluable source of news of the Resistance for this column. Through the Bill of Rights Defense Committee’s Web site (, organizing tools and texts of resolutions already passed are continually available to communities that want to mount the ramparts.

“It took a year,” Talanian points out, “for the first 50 locales to pass resolutions; the next 50 took just two months. A movement that started in progressive communities now includes many more mainstream communities, including Tucson and Flagstaff, Arizona; Dillon and Missoula, Montana; Blount County, Tennessee; and Minneapolis, Minnesota.”

On National Public Radio’s On the Media (April 29), Talanian was asked how she got involved in this awakening of the citizenry to realize that they can actually do something to defend themselves against a national government that is making up the rule of constitutional law as it goes along.

“I had worked to help end apartheid,” Nancy said, “and I had done work to help bring democracy to Nigeria. When I heard terms like ‘military tribunals,’ it was reminiscent of what happened to Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni activists who were hanged by the Nigerian military dictatorship.

“And when I heard about detentions without charges, without trial, it was reminiscent of how the apartheid government of South Africa treated the African people who were fighting for their freedom, and I felt this was not my country if this was the direction that [the United States] was going in. I had to take action.”

The thrust of the Bill of Rights Defense Committees around the country is—as Nancy Talanian emphasizes—to “ensure that there is a debate. There was no debate back in October of 2001, even in Congress [when the USA Patriot Act was rammed through]. Also, we hope we can have an impact on making sure there’s a national debate before Patriot II—the Domestic Security Enhancement Act—is voted on by Congress.”

From what I can find out, Ashcroft’s plan may be not to introduce Patriot II as a whole, but rather to slip sections of it into bills dealing with national security. Fortunately, the ACLU’s Washington staff and other civil liberties organizations keep a very close watch on bills the Justice Department can use to set more land mines for the Constitution.

But it is important to realize that the more than 100 civil-liberties-zone resolutions around the country include a requirement—sent to each of the federal legislators representing that community—that those members of Congress actively work to repeal laws and combat executive orders that violate the civil liberties enumerated in the Bill of Rights. I would also suggest messages of support to those members of Congress who already are demanding of Ashcroft, the FBI, the CIA, the Homeland Security Department, and others in the ever expanding web of surveillance that they tell us precisely how they are implementing these expanding threats to individual liberties.

Among the current, increasingly impatient watchdogs in Congress are senators Russ Feingold and Patrick Leahy (but not Charles Schumer or Hillary Clinton). And in the House, John Conyers, Jerrold Nadler, James Sensenbrenner, Dennis Kucinich, Barney Frank, Bernie Sanders, Bobby Scott, and District of Columbia delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. This is a partial list, and I welcome the names of other unintimidated congressional patriots.

Worth attention is the following section of the State of Hawaii’s resolution reminding members of Congress and other Americans of the Japanese-American internment camps ordered by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and confirmed by the United States Supreme Court:

“The residents of Hawaii during World War II experienced firsthand the dangers of unbalanced pursuit of security without appropriate checks and balances for the protection of basic liberties.”

And now, the resolution continues, “the citizens of Hawaii are concerned that the actions of the Attorney General of the United States and the United States Justice Department pose significant threats to Constitutional protections.”

That resolution should have added to the list of despoilers of our liberties President George W. Bush, who has enthusiastically approved all this legislation and has told John Ashcroft that he is doing a “fabulous job.”

In the 2004 presidential campaign, already well under way, Bush should be continually held accountable for violating his oath to protect the Constitution, very much including the Bill of Rights. But who is the Democratic presidential candidate to demand that?

Next week: New York City Council members and the New York Civil Liberties Union begin a Bill of Rights Defense Campaign!