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Joining the War Over the Constitution

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 info@rightsanddissent.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.”

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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 (bordc.org), 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!