Ashcroft Defied on City Hall Steps


As New Yorkers living in the city most affected by September 11, we acknowledge the need to protect our safety, but as people who prize our Constitution and Bill of Rights, we believe it is impermissible to suspend freedom in the name of preserving it.

— New York Bill of Rights Defense Campaign leaflet, New York City Hall, May 28

On the outskirts of the May 28 press conference on the steps of City Hall to herald the resolution submitted to the City Council by the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Bill of Rights Defense Campaign, there were other rallying messages: “Save After School Programs!” “Save Day Care/If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Break It!”

The mayor was nowhere to be seen. His Honor is as imperious as his predecessor, but in a Marie Antoinette way (“Let them eat cake!”). Bloomberg has been as indifferent to the Bush-Ashcroft raid on the Bill of Rights as our senators, Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer, to whom this Civil Liberties Resolution is also being sent.

Sponsoring the City Hall rally were the NYCLU and its New York Bill of Rights Defense Campaign, along with more than 25 other organizations, among them:

The Center for Constitutional Rights, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Lawyers Guild, the New York Public Library Guild, and the New York Immigration Coalition.

A key force in moving this Bill of Rights resolution is City Councilman Bill Perkins, who is joined by Margarita Lopez, David Yassky, Hiram Monserrate, Charles Barron, Larry Seabrook, and Albert Vann, among other supporting councilmembers.

Conspicuously missing is City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, who may well be running against Michael Bloomberg the next time around. Miller will lose votes, rather than gain them, by opposing this resolution. Somebody send him a copy of the Bill of Rights to contrast with the USA Patriot Act.

The resolution essentially includes the demands to federal and state governments I’ve cited in previous columns about similar resolutions already passed in three states and 120 cities, towns, and counties around the country: End secret detentions; stop finding out what books we buy, or borrow from libraries; cease ethnic and religious profiling; and stop sending official burglars with badges into our homes and offices to download what’s in our computers.

There are also demands in this city’s resolution directed at New York police commissioner Ray Kelly, who is also in dire need of a copy of the Bill of Rights.

One such command is to “refrain from collecting or maintaining information about the political, religious, or social views, associations or activities of any individual, group, association, organization, corporation, business, or partnership, whether such information is obtained by NYPD employees acting alone or in conjunction with state or federal law enforcement officials, unless that information directly relates to an investigation of criminal activities, and unless there are reasonable grounds to suspect the subject . . . is or may be involved in criminal conduct.”

But right now, Ray Kelly’s NYPD is doing a lot of what this resolution tells it not to. Consider the political questioning of hundreds of arrested anti-war demonstrators recently. Also, under John Ashcroft’s return to the disgraced COINTELPRO surveillance guidelines of the 1960s, the FBI, the CIA, and other federal intelligence agencies—often in conjunction with state and local police—are violating our basic First Amendment rights in other ways.

As the New York City Bill of Rights Defense Campaign’s briefing papers emphasize, the FBI and other federal agencies do not have “to show reasonable suspicion, much less probable cause,” that the information they gather is “related to criminal activity.” They merely have to make “the broad assertion that the request is related to an ongoing terrorism or foreign intelligence investigation.” (All these terms are very loosely described by the government.)

And now that state and local police are working closely with federal law enforcement, dossiers collected on New Yorkers by the NYPD can wind up in merged into federal data banks. Running the NYPD’s “terrorism” investigations is former CIA official David Cohen.

Therefore, although the City Council is required by the resolution to periodically get detailed information from federal authorities on how they’re implementing the Patriot Act, and Ashcroft’s executive orders, in this city—and then give New Yorkers that information—that’s not enough.

The mayor and the police commissioner should have to regularly make public a record of how the NYPD is justifying its surveillance of us, and other reductions of our liberties, whether under federal orders or on its own.

But this Bill of Rights Defense Campaign resolution is a very useful start. To become part of it, contact the NYCLU/Bill of Rights Defense Campaign, 125 Broad Street, New York, NY. 10004, or the project director at the NYCLU, Udi Ofer, 212-344-3005, ext. 242. The Web site for the campaign is; for the NYCLU, it’s

Left out of the information available at the May 28 rally was the fact that these Bill of Rights resolutions began in Northampton, Massachusetts, soon after 9-11, and have been organized nationally by Nancy Talanian of the original Northampton Bill of Rights Defense Committee, and later by the national ACLU and its affiliates.

On the steps of City Hall, I introduced myself to Charles Barron, who co-sponsored the New York resolution and had spoken tellingly at the rally of how the Bush-Ashcroft attacks on our liberties reminded him of the FBI’s COINTELPRO surveillance and infiltration in the 1960s that forced some dissenting activists, as Barron said, “to go underground because of government harassment of them.”

I spoke to Barron about liberties repressed in Zimbabwe, and he denounced me for “not telling the truth” about his report on Robert Mugabe’s government after Barron’s trip there. I asked Barron if he’d read my four recent columns on Zimbabwe. “No,” he said, “because you do not tell the truth.”

“How would you know,” I said, “if you haven’t read them? Send me any factual corrections, and I’ll print them.” He refused to do that because, he said repeatedly, “You have an agenda!”

“I do indeed,” I told the councilman. “That’s why I’m here today. I oppose any government that suppresses civil liberties, whether it’s Bush and Ashcroft or Robert Mugabe.” My friend Malcolm X used to urge, “Say it plain!” And Barron is not doing that about Mugabe.

From what I could tell, there was no coverage in any of the newspaper dailies of the May 28 rally. What the hell, it’s only the Constitution.