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Defending the Bill of Rights

A diverse movement to protect civil liberties is bringing together strange bedfellows: far-right militias and lobbying groups, left and liberal NGOs and community organizations, libertarians and the NRA.

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"If the PATRIOT Act II goes into effect then we're really in trouble," said Nancy Chang, an attorney with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights. "It penalizes people who provide material support to organizations designated as terrorist by the attorney general -- for example we could lose our citizenship just for offering trainings on International Human Rights Law to people they consider to be terrorists."

It would also automatically invalidate the "Red Squad" consent decrees against political spying by local police departments which are in place in many cities. Chang noted that the act was being drafted behind closed doors without information being released to the public or input from Congress.

"There wouldn't have been any acknowledgment of it except for the fact that it was leaked," she said. "It makes one question whether the government's intention was to trot it out to Congress when we're in a time of high stress, like war with Iraq. That's what they did with the first one."

The city resolutions can't actually supersede federal mandates, but they can influence how local police departments and other municipal bodies act, for example preventing police from carrying out routine racial profiling or political spying that has not been specifically requested by the FBI.

"And the resolutions also make people aware of what's going on," said Talanian.

The resolutions have been passed in traditionally liberal enclaves, like Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Eugene, Oregon. But they have also been passed in industrial, suburban and heartland locations: Detroit; Fairbanks, Alaska; Alachua County, Florida; and Takoma Park, Maryland, to name a few.

While many of the resolution efforts were spearheaded by left-leaning peace or interfaith groups, right-wingers and libertarians also have deep affection for the Bill of Rights. Right-wing militias and groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) are synonymous with the Second Amendment right to bear arms, and conservatives ranging from segregationists to opponents of reproductive choice lean heavily on the 10th Amendment giving lawmaking power to state governments. Right-wingers and libertarians are also ardent proponents of freedom of speech and property and privacy rights.

"Especially on the issue of privacy and surveillance is where a lot of these left and right groups have come together," said Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the Illinois ACLU. "There's an ongoing distrust of the government on the right. But it is interesting the degree to which many [right] groups which opposed the government in the past have felt a need to support the administration now."

The fight against the Total Information Awareness program, which would have given the government open-ended powers to track a person's banking, credit card use, travel, health and other personal information over the internet, brought together a powerful opposition coalition including the ACLU, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Americans for Tax Reform and the Eagle Forum. Ultimately, these opponents were able to significantly curb the implementation of Total Information Awareness as well as the TIPS program, which would have enlisted mail carriers, meter readers and other private and civil employees in everyday spying.

"We were very instrumental in stopping the TIPS program, and we are opposed to national ID cards and federalizing drivers' licenses," said Phyllis Schlafly, president of the conservative Eagle Forum. "There are a lot of bad implications to these things. We don't want the government monitoring the actions of innocent citizens."

This may have been the first time Schlafly, a famous right-wing pundit and anti-feminist, found herself working hand in hand with the likes of left-wing anti-war groups.

Tim Lynch, director of the libertarian Cato Institute's program on criminal justice, noted that while Cato doesn't work in coalitions, it has made defending the Bill of Rights a major part of its publishing and public debate work.

"We're especially concerned about military tribunals, Bush designating people as enemy combatants, arresting people without arrest warrants," he said.

While Lynch acknowledged that there is a pan-partisan movement to defend the bill of rights going on, he said a large number of people are still unaware of the full extent of the blows our civil liberties are taking.

"So many people are understandably frightened by the risk of terrorist attacks that they are all too willing to believe they will be safer if the president just passes another anti-terror law," he said. "They lose sight of what they're giving up."

Kari Lydersen writes for the Washington Post and is an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago. This article is part of an ongoing series, "And Liberty for All," which she writes weekly for AlterNet.