Two months after the 9/11 attacks, 25 teachers, retirees, lawyers, doctors, students, and nurses—none of them professional civil libertarians—formed the Bill of Rights Defense Committee in Northampton, Massachusetts. They knew the Bush-Cheney war on the Constitution had begun.
That October 25, the White House had terrified Congress into rushing the Patriot Act into law. In the Senate, only Democrat Russ Feingold—accurately predicting the continuous rape of the Bill of Rights—voted against it, disobeying Democratic leader Tom Daschle, who desperately wanted to avoid the Republicans tarring the Democrats as unpatriotic.
The unintimidated 25 citizens of Northampton convinced more than 1,000 of their neighbors to sign a petition that, by the following May, motivated the Northampton City Council to unanimously pass a resolution mandating local police to inform the people when federal agents of Attorney General John Ashcroft were enforcing the Patriot Act in the town and its environs.
In the spirit of this nation’s founders, the resolution boldly directed: “Local law enforcement continues 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 the . . . Patriot Act or orders of the Executive Branch.”
General Ashcroft was later to tell the House Judiciary Committee: “The last time I looked at September 11, an American street was a war zone.” Anyone on those streets could be the enemy.
As additional Massachusetts towns and the city councils of Ann Arbor and Denver took Northampton’s lead and passed similar resolutions, BORDC founder and director Nancy Talanian put together a masterful website to synchronize a growing national movement—rightsanddissent.org (on which I click every morning to find out the cities, towns, and states creating new committees)—and news stories from around the country on further administration raids on the Constitution. By now, more than 400 cities and towns—and eight states—have passed BORDC resolutions and continue to monitor local and state police and their congressional representatives.
This truly grassroots movement is a 21st-century revival of the Committees of Correspondence started in Boston by Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty in 1767, which became a news network throughout the colonies. Those committees reported the growing abuses by the King’s transplanted governors, customs officials, and troops of the Colonists’ individual rights, which were rooted deep in English history. In a 1773 secret meeting in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and other rebels committed a hanging offense by starting such a committee in their state.
In 1805, an American historian of the rise of the revolution, Mercy Otis Warren, wrote: “Perhaps no single step contributed so much to cement the union of the colonies, and the final acquisition of independence, as the establishment of the Committee of Correspondence.”
As I have often reported here over the years, the BORDC, while not igniting a revolution, has strengthened the resistance—locally, regionally, and nationally—to our own king’s war on the Constitution. And some references in the Congressional Record show that members of Congress are aware of BORDC members among their constituents.
But the war on the Constitution continues. While the Patriot Act has been somewhat watered down, and there are continuing American Civil Liberties Union lawsuits to bring deeper changes, much of the Patriot Act—not to mention a noxious stream of Bush executive orders—keeps the war on the Constitution thriving. For example, I’ll soon be reporting on efforts by Attorney General Michael Mukasey and FBI Director Robert Mueller to return to J. Edgar Hoover’s methods, with expanded FBI power to begin terrorism investigations of Americans without any evidence of wrongdoing.
Talanian, as the BORDC’s equivalent of Paul Revere, says: “These years of grassroots action to restore constitutional protections have led to increased oversight . . . but they have fallen short of the full restoration of constitutional rights and liberties.”
Therefore, a new BORDC “People’s Campaign for the Constitution” will “continue local organizing with a focus on the lawmakers in Washington—rather than city and county councils and state legislatures.” As Talanian emphasizes: “The new president, new Congress, and the 2009 expiration of Patriot Act provisions offer the best opportunity we have had . . . to change the direction our nation is taking.”
In a future column: the structure, organization, and resources (including a toolkit and database) of this BORDC rescue of the Constitution, as well as ways to get involved. Meanwhile, there is now available an essential, concise, and accurate blueprint, Talanian points out, “of how key anti-terrorism laws and policies enacted since September 11, 2001, affect Americans’ constitutional rights.”
The sizable booklet, The “War on Terror” and the Constitution, is organized around the Bush laws and policies—corresponding to sections of our Constitution—that directly affect our lives and those of others. Shown on each page are the breakdowns of what the Bush Tories have done to each part of the Constitution: For example, “Fourth Amendment: Right to Privacy: the Provisions of the Patriot Act/What They Say, What They Change/How Each One Can Affect You” is included as well as illustrative stories of the sneaky ways the Act is being used.
Take Section 206 of the Patriot Act: roving wiretaps by the FBI under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. How can that affect you? “There is no requirement that the FBI tap the line only if it knows that the intended target is present at the location . . . [this] allow[s] conversations of innocent bystanders who may be using the device to be wiretapped.” At their office. Or anywhere they use a phone or a computer.
Also included are key Supreme Court rulings on these laws and executive measures, with detailed notes that lead to more information. This publication should be in every place of learning, including graduate schools, and, as the new Congress begins, on the desk of every member.
To get a copy ($3, and wholesale prices for quantities), contact the Bill of Rights Defense Committee at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-582-0110. You can order one online at rightsanddissent.org or download a printable order form at rightsanddissent.org. It’s a sequel to Thomas Paine’s 1776 pamphlet, “Common Sense.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 22, 2008