Don't Tread on Them

Cities move to protect the Bill of Rights

by Dave Lindorff

In These Times magazine, January 2003


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 Act."

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."

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