Don't Tread on Them
Cities move to protect the
Bill of Rights
by Dave Lindorff
In These Times magazine,
In the wake of the Republicans' November
5 election sweep, it would be easy to assume that niceties like
freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial and equal
protection under the law are no longer of concern to Americans.
That would be wrong.
Over the past few months, towns, cities
and counties in 24 states have been passing or considering passing
resolutions in defense of civil rights and liberties. These resolutions,
while they have no binding effect upon federal authorities, make
it clear that many communities, even post-9/11 and with concerns
about continued terrorist threats, ardently value the protections
of the Bill of Rights.
"The resolutions are intended to
get a dialogue going," says teacher and Northampton City
Council President Mike Bardsley, who championed one of the first
"Bill of Rights Defense" resolutions, passed in that
western Massachusetts town last May.
The Northampton resolution, which is now
being offered as model legislation for other communities, calls
on local law enforcement agencies to "preserve residents'
freedom of speech, religion, assembly and privacy, rights to counsel
and due process in judicial proceedings," and to protect
residents 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
The resolution, which eventually won the
support of the local chief of police, further instructs federal
authorities acting within Northampton not to engage in detentions
without charge or in racial profiling. It calls on federal authorities
and state police to report publicly any secret spying or detentions
conducted under the auspices of the USA PATRIOT Act, new executive
orders of the president, or "COlNTELPRO-type regulations."
Finally, the resolution calls on the state's
congressional delegation to monitor implementation of the USA
PATRIOT Act and to seek repeal of those portions that "violate
the fundamental rights and liberties as stated in the constitutions
of the Commonwealth [of Massachusetts] and the United States."
So far, more than 15 resolutions resembling
the Northampton measure have been passed by governing bodies in
Gainesville, Florida; Amherst, Leverett and Cambridge, Massachusetts;
Boulder and Denver, Colorado; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Berkeley, California;
Carrboro, North Carolina; Madison, Wisconsin; and Takoma Park,
Maryland (the suburban home of many federal workers, including
some who work for federal law enforcement agencies). Some go even
further than Northampton's, instructing local police not to cooperate
with the INS in detaining people.
Similar resolutions are being considered
by more than 40 other local governments, including Asheville and
Greensboro, North Carolina; Portland, Oregon; Kansas City, Missouri;
and Missoula, Montana. There are even efforts underway to win
passage of Bill of Rights defense resolutions in New York City
and in Montgomery County, Maryland, site of most of the recent
sniper shootings (Takoma Park, a part of Montgomery County, passed
its resolution October 2S, shortly after capture of the suspects).
Americans may be frightened of terrorism,
but there seems to be a powerful grassroots concern, too, that
basic American freedoms are under threat.
That's certainly what happened in the
case of the 342-page USA PATRIOT Act passed with little debate
and even less dissent by Congress six weeks after the attacks
on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Brainchild of Attorney
General John Ashcroft, the act is a hodgepodge of legislation
that essentially frees up agencies to spy domestically, grants
broad police and surveillance authority to the executive branch,
and gives federal authorities broad new investigative powers without
the need to go to court for a warrant. People using the wrong
keyword in a Google search could now find themselves triggering
a monitoring of their computer activity, for example. Detentions
without trial-usually considered the hallmark of a totalitarian
society- are also authorized by the act.
"I think a lot of people think in
boxes," says Bardsley, his voice still hoarse from a full
day spent outside (futilely) haranguing voters to vote Democratic
on Election Day. "They think that what happens nationally
won't affect them locally. A measure like this getting debated
in city council and in the local media helps to show people how
laws like the USA PATRIOT Act will affect them in their local
communities, where it lets police look at the books you take out
from the library or the videos you rent."
The American Civil Liberties Union recently
began promoting passage of local Bill of Rights defense resolutions
as part of its national campaign in defense of civil liberties.
Says Damon Moglen, the group's national field coordinator, "We're
building a grassroots movement that says: 'Enough is enough! We
can be safe and free.' After this election ... it has become more
important than ever to take action at the local level. We will
pass these resolutions across the country, and then we'll bring
the issue back to Congress."