Resolutions as Resistance

(anti-USA Patriot Act resolutions)

by Jessica Azelay

Z magazine, March 2003

Despite sizable dissent, President Bush has resolved to declare war on both constitutional rights and the country of Iraq. The United States Congress has been largely complicit, declaring its support of his policies. In passing both the USA PATRIOT Act and the more recent Iraq War Resolution, congressional representatives ignored a huge outpouring of letters and phone calls by constituents demanding the opposite. In response to the obvious flouting of democracy and the bill of rights, several city councils across the U.S. have made some important resolutions of their own.

These resolutions differ in content and strength. Some assert opposition to unilateral U.S./UK military action against Iraq and demand cooperation with the United Nations while many condemn a war on Iraq altogether. The Santa Cruz resolution not only opposes war, but also argues against continuing the non-military economic sanctions that have been strangling Iraq since 1990. The resolution passed in Syracuse, New York "urges the people of Syracuse to exert efforts to convince the President not to unilaterally initiate any war."

The reasons that councilors give for their resolutions are many and they reflect the depth and diversity of objections that people have to the possible war on Iraq. In New Haven, for instance, councilors raise concerns that "committing American troops to Iraq will put in harm's way citizens of New Haven, a disproportionate number of them racial and ethnic minorities from our city's most economically deprived neighborhoods." The Aaronsburg, Pennsylvania resolution states that killing "innocent Middle Eastern people, including Muslims, will widen the gorge between people of different races and religions rather than nurturing a union of humanity here and abroad." Many resolutions cite potential destabilization in the Middle East and the failure of President Bush to present convincing evidence of Iraq's threat to the United States as reasons to oppose the national war drive. Some call attention to the connections between war and domestic policy, pointing out that the budgetary casualties of war will be much-needed social programs and calling out the president and Congress for ignoring problems at home or attempting to cover them up with a war.

Though copies of the resolutions have been sent to President Bush, State Representatives, and the United Nations, city councils do not have real authority in the international arena. Their decisions cannot directly interrupt the government's plans for war. Instead, antiwar resolutions can serve as a vehicle for public education, media outreach, and building relationships between community groups. Activists in cities all over the United States are working to make themselves visible, widen the debate, and reach a broad range of people. When activists put together an antiwar resolution and submit it to a city council, they move the discussion to their conversational turf. It enables them to promote ideas on their terms, putting the opposition on the defensive.

In many cities, the process has helped antiwar activists achieve greater visibility and backing from diverse groups in their communities. In Syracuse, for example, activists gave copies of the resolution to community leaders for their consideration. The result was important dialogue and debate not only in the city council, but in other organizations and institutions as well.

In addition to the Syracuse Common Council members who signed, the resolution received endorsement from several churches, the Syracuse Area Middle East Dialogue Group, unions, colleges, the Syracuse Jail Ministry, and the Syracuse Republican Community. Thus, the campaign opened up new venues for the antiwar discussion, and it provided the opportunity for many groups to come out officially and openly against war.

Since its passage in October 2001, numerous cities have passed resolutions condemning the USA PATRIOT Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act). The resolutions have many different names such as Resolution to Defend the Bill of Rights and Civil Liberties, Human Rights Resolution, Resolution Regarding the USA PATRIOT Act and the Protection of Civil Rights, or Civil Liberties Resolution, to name a few. What the resolutions have in common is that they assert community criticism of the USA PATRIOT Act and other Executive Orders that violate the constitution.

The resolution passed in Madison, Wisconsin, for instance, declares that "the provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act expand the authority of the federal government to detain and investigate citizens and non-citizens and engage in electronic surveillance of citizens and non-citizens and threatens civil rights and liberties guaranteed under the United States Constitution." It goes on to say, "the City of Madison recognizes that such infringement of the constitutionally guaranteed rights of any person, under the color of law, is an abuse of power, a breach of the public trust, a misappropriation of public resources, a violation of civil rights, and is beyond the scope of governmental authority."

Various city councils wrote that the USA PATRIOT Act significantly:

* Expands the government's ability to access sensitive medical, mental health, financial and educational records about individuals

* Lowers the burden of proof required to conduct secret searches and telephone and Internet surveillance

* Gives law enforcement expanded authority to obtain library records, and prohibits librarians from informing patrons of monitoring or information requests

Gives the Attorney General and the Secretary of State the power to designate domestic groups, including religious and political organizations, as "terrorist organizations"

* Grants power to the Attorney General to subject citizens of other nations to indefinite detention or deportation even if they have not committed a crime

* Authorizes eavesdropping on confidential communications between lawyers and their clients in federal custody

* Limits disclosure of public documents and records under the Freedom of Information Act, etc.

Some city councils expressed concern that the Patriot Act increases the vulnerability of minority and immigrant populations. For example, the Oakland, California resolution declares, "The Department of Justice interpretations of this Act and these Executive Orders particularly targets Muslims, people of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent and citizens of other nations, and thereby encourages racial profiling by law enforcement and hate crimes by individuals in our community." Meanwhile other resolutions, such as the one passed in Santa Cruz, California articulate

the potential danger to activist groups. "The Patriot Act define 'domestic terrorism' so broadly a to apply to certain acts of civil disobedience that may include lawful advocacy groups such as Operation Rescue or Greenpeace as terrorist organizations and may subject then to invasive surveillance, wire tap ping, harassment, and may criminally penalize them for protected political advocacy; also the Patriot Act grants unchecked power to the Secretary of State to designate domestic groups as 'terrorist organizations."'

While the antiwar resolution are largely symbolic, resolution denouncing the PATRIOT Act have real potential to change law enforcement activities. These resolutions go beyond words that affirm civil liberties and actually call o~ local law enforcement agencies t' protect the rights of their citizens The majority of city council resolutions concerning the implementation of the PATRIOT Act in their communities request that local law enforcement preserve the civil rights of their residents even when ordered or allowed to infringe upon those rights by the USA PATRIOT Act or Orders of the Executive Branch. Many extend their request to any state or federal law enforcement agencies acting within their community. These resolutions also strongly forbid racial profiling in areas under their jurisdiction, and most of them demand that congressional representatives work to repeal aspects of the Act that violate constitutional rights. The resolution passed by the town of Carrboro, NC provides a good example: "The town of Carrboro, NC acting in the spirit and history of our community, hereby requests that:

Local law enforcement continue to preserve residents' freedom of speech, religion, assembly and privacy; the right 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 new powers granted by the USA PATRIOT Act or Orders of the Executive Branch.

Any federal or state law enforcement officials acting within the Town of Carrboro work in accordance with the policies and procedures of the Carrboro Police Department, and in cooperation with the Department, and not engage in or permit detentions without charges or racial profiling, and to regularly and publicly report to the Town the extent and manner in which they have acted under the Act or the new Executive Orders, including the names of any detainees held in the region or any Carrboro residents detained elsewhere.

Our congressional delegation monitor the implementation of the Act and Orders cited herein and actively work for the repeal of those portions of the Act and those Orders that violate fundamental rights and liberties guaranteed by the United States and North Carolina Constitutions."

The resolution approved by the city council of Leverett, Massachusetts, like many resolutions, calls on local and federal law enforcement to "report to citizens regularly and publicly the extent to and manner in which they have acted under the USA PATRIOT Act, new Executive Orders, or COINTELPRO-type regulations, including disclosing the names of any detainees."

In an acknowledgment that gathering information under the PATRIOT Act often requires the cooperation of private citizens, the resolution passed in New Haven, Connecticut asks "private citizens-including residents, employers, educators, and business owners-to demonstrate similar respect for civil rights and civil liberties, especially but not limited to conditions of employment and cooperation with investigations. "

The over two-dozen city councils that have passed these defiant resolutions are just the tip of the iceberg. Civil rights activists are campaigning for similar resolutions in over 60 additional cities. They are holding town meetings, circulating petitions, and securing help and endorsements from various community groups, unions, churches, and universities.

In Oakland, California, for instance, the effort to pass a resolution opposing the PATRIOT Act was led by the Oakland Civil Rights Defense Committee. In addition, it was endorsed by the following local organizations:

* Labor Immigrant Organizing Network (LION)

* Paul Robeson Chapter of the ACLU, ACLU-NC

* National Lawyers Guild (NLG)

* Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights

* Centro Legal De La Raza

* American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, San Francisco

* Bay Area Chapter (ADCSF)

* Oakland Public Library Advisory Commission

* Critical Resistance

* UAW Local 3030

* Green Party of Alameda County

* Lake Merritt Neighbors Organized for Peace (LMNOP)

* Peoples NonViolent Response Coalition (PNVRC)

* California Women's Agenda (CAWA)

* Filipinos for Affirmative Action

* Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach

* Electronic Frontier Foundation, National Organization for Women-Oakland/East Bay (NOW)

* Berkeley Women In Black

* Alameda County Peace and Freedom Party

* African Peoples Solidarity Committee

The strong wording of many of the anti-PATRIOT Act declarations challenges the authority of the federal government. Brave cities are drawing protective circles around themselves, boldly telling would-be wiretappers, racial profilers, and rights violators that they are unwelcome. Some say that these lines are only symbolic, that it is impossible for city councils to hold back the national government. But according to Nancy Talanian, of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, cities and towns have the right and responsibility to uphold their state and U.S. constitutions. The wording of most of the resolutions reflects that sentiment. Many resolutions contain quotes and references to the Bill of Rights and outline how the resolution is meant to reinforce those rights. So far, no resolution has been challenged in court.

The fight to stop war on Iraq and the struggle to resist the encroachment on people's rights is going to be long and difficult. It is important to find practical, shorter term goals along the way, and in many places city resolutions represent a good option. The networking and mobilizing employed to pass these resolutions contributes to the broader goals of our movements. Working to see these resolutions adopted on the town or city level helps activists enhance their influence within their own communities.

City councils are not the only organizations passing antiwar or anti-PATRIOT Act resolutions. They are just one part of a growing trend. Unions, colleges and universities, religious organizations, and community groups have been busy passing their own resolutions. When used strategically, they constitute a telling achievement. At a time when politicians are shirking their responsibility to represent the sentiments of their constituents, these resolutions provide a powerful tool for communities to speak from the bottom up.


Jessica Azalay is an activist and writer from West Virginia.

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